Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet
by Sarah Waters
Tipping the Velvet
by Sarah Waters
Chapter 1
Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you
will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline
makes Whitstable natives - as they are properly called - the
largest and the juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest,
oysters in the whole of England. Whitstable oysters are,
quite rightly, famous. The French, who are known for their
sensitive palates, regularly cross the Channel for them; they
are shipped, in barrels of ice, to the dining-tables of
Hamburg and Berlin. Why, the King himself, I heard,
makes special trips to Whitstable with Mrs Keppel, to eat
oyster suppers in a private hotel; and as for the old Queen she dined on a native a day (or so they say) till the day she
Did you ever go to Whitstable, and see the oyster-parlours
there? My father kept one; I was born in it - do you recall a
narrow, weather-boarded house, painted a flaking blue,
half-way between the High Street and the harbour? Do you
remember the bulging sign that hung above the door, that
said that Astley's Oysters, the Best in Kent were to be had
within? Did you, perhaps, push at that door, and step into
the dim, low-ceilinged, fragrant room beyond it? Can you
recall the tables with their chequered cloths - the bill of fare
chalked on a board - the spirit-lamps, the sweating slabs of
Were you served by a girl with a rosy cheek, and a saucy
manner, and curls? That was my sister, Alice. Or was it a
man, rather tall and stooping, with a snowy apron falling
from the knot in his neck-tie to the bow in his boots? That
was my father. Did you see, as the kitchen door swung to
and fro, a lady stand frowning into the clouds of steam that
rose from a pan of bubbling oyster soup, or a sizzling
gridiron? That was my mother.
And was there at her side a slender, white-faced,
unremarkable-looking girl, with the sleeves of her dress
rolled up to her elbows, and a lock of lank and colourless
hair forever falling into her eye, and her lips continually
moving to the words of some street-singer's or music-hall
That was me.
Like Molly Malone in the old ballad, I was a fishmonger,
because my parents were. They kept the restaurant, and the
rooms above it: I was raised an oyster-girl, and steeped in
all the flavours of the trade. My first few childish steps I
took around vats of sleeping natives and barrels of ice;
before I was ever given a piece of chalk and a slate, I was
handed an oyster-knife and instructed in its use; while I was
still lisping out my alphabet at the schoolmaster's knee, I
could name you the contents of an oyster-cook's kitchen could sample fish with a blindfold on, and tell you their
variety. Whitstable was all the world to me, Astley's Parlour
my own particular country, oyster-juice my medium.
Although I didn't long believe the story told to me by
Mother - that they had found me as a baby in an oystershell, and a greedy customer had almost eaten me for lunch
- for eighteen years I never doubted my own oyster-ish
sympathies, never looked far beyond my father's kitchen for
occupation, or for love.
It was a curious kind of life, mine, even by Whitstable
standards; but it was not a disagreeable or even a terribly
hard one. Our working day began at seven, and ended
twelve hours later; and through all those hours my duties
were the same. While Mother cooked, and Alice and my
father served, I sat upon a high stool at the side of a vat of
natives, and scrubbed, and rinsed, and plied the oysterknife. Some people like their oysters raw; and for them
your job is easiest, for you have merely to pick out a dozen
natives from the barrel, swill the brine from them, and place
them, with a piece of parsley or cress, upon a plate. But for
those who took their oysters stewed, or fried - or baked, or
scalloped, or put in a pie - my labours were more delicate.
Then I must open each oyster, and beard it, and transfer it
to Mother's cooking-pot with all of its savoury flesh intact,
and none of its liquor spilled or tainted. Since a supperplate will hold a dozen fish; since oyster-teas are cheap; and
since our Parlour was a busy one, with room for fifty
customers at once - well, you may calculate for yourself the
vast numbers of oysters which passed, each day, beneath
my prising knife; and you might imagine, too, the redness
and the soreness and the sheer salty soddenness of my
fingers at the close of every afternoon. Even now, two
decades and more since I put aside my oyster-knife and quit
my father's kitchen for ever, I feel a ghostly, sympathetic
twinge in my wrist and finger-joints at the sight of a
fishmonger's barrel, or the sound of an oyster-man's cry;
and still, sometimes, I believe I can catch the scent of liquor
and brine beneath my thumb-nail, and in the creases of my
I have said that there was nothing in my life, when I was
young, but oysters; but that is not quite true. I had friends
and cousins, as any girl must have who grows up in a small
town in a large, old family. I had my sister Alice - my
dearest friend of all - with whom I shared a bedroom and a
bed, and who heard all my secrets, and told me all of hers. I
even had a kind of beau: a boy named Freddy, who worked
a dredging smack beside my brother Davy and my Uncle
Joe on Whitstable Bay.
And last of all I had a fondness - you might say, a kind of
passion - for the music hall; and more particularly for
music-hall songs and the singing of them. If you have
visited Whitstable you will know that this was a rather
inconvenient passion, for the town has neither music hall
nor theatre - only a solitary lamp-post before the Duke of
Cumberland Hotel, where minstrel troupes occasionally
sing, and the Punch-and-Judy man, in August, sets his
booth. But Whitstable is only fifteen minutes away by train
from Canterbury; and here there was a music hall - the
Canterbury Palace of Varieties - where the shows were
three hours long, and the tickets cost sixpence, and the acts
were the best to be seen, they said, in all of Kent.
The Palace was a small and, I suspect, a rather shabby
theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with
my oyster-girl's eyes -I see the mirror-glass which lined the
walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids,
painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our
oyster-house, it had its own particular scent - the scent, I
know now, of music halls everywhere - the scent of wood
and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and of tobacco
and of hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I
loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre
managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very
odour of applause. Later still I came to know it as the
essence not of pleasure, but of grief.
That, however, is to get ahead of my story.
I was more intimate than most girls with the colours and
scents of the Canterbury Palace — in the period, at least, of
which I am thinking, that final summer in my father's
house, when I became eighteen - because Alice had a beau
who worked there, a boy named Tony Reeves, who got us
seats at knock-down prices or for free. Tony was the
nephew of the Palace's manager, the celebrated Tricky
Reeves, and therefore something of a catch for our Alice.
My parents mistrusted him at first, thinking him 'rapid'
because he worked in a theatre, and wore cigars behind his
ears, and talked glibly of contracts, London, and
champagne. But no one could dislike Tony for long, he was
so large-hearted and easy and good; and like every other
boy who courted her, he adored my sister, and was ready to
be kind to us all on her account.
Thus it was that Alice and I were so frequently to be found
on a Saturday night, tucking our skirts beneath our seats
and calling out the choruses to the gayest songs, in the best
and most popular shows, at the Canterbury Palace. Like the
rest of the audience, we were discriminating. We had our
favourite turns - artistes we watched and shouted for; songs
we begged to have sung and re-sung again and again until
the singer's throat was dry, and she - for more often than not
it was the lady singers whom Alice and I loved best - could
sing no more, but only smile and curtsey.
And when the show was over, and we had paid our respects
to Tony in his stuffy little office behind the ticket-seller's
booth, we would carry the tunes away with us. We would
sing them on the train to Whitstable - and sometimes others,
returning home from the same show as merry as we, would
sing them with us. We would whisper them into the
darkness as we lay in bed, we would dream our dreams to
the beat of their verses; and we would wake next morning
humming them still. We'd serve a bit of music-hall
glamour, then, with our fish suppers - Alice whistling as
she carried platters, and making the customers smile to hear
her; me, perched on my high stool beside my bowl of brine,
singing to the oysters that I scrubbed and prised and
bearded. Mother said I should be on the stage myself.
When she said it, however, she laughed; and so did I. The
girls I saw in the glow of the footlights, the girls whose
songs I loved to learn and sing, they weren't like me. They
were more like my sister: they had cherry lips, and curls
that danced about their shoulders; they had bosoms that
jutted, and elbows that dimpled, and ankles - when they
showed them - as slim and as shapely as beer-bottles. I was
tall, and rather lean. My chest was flat, my hair dull, my
eyes a drab and an uncertain blue. My complexion, to be
sure, was perfectly smooth and clear, and my teeth were
very white; but these - in our family, at least - were counted
unremarkable, for since we all passed our days in a miasma
of simmering brine, we were all as bleached and
blemishless as cuttlefish.
No, girls like Alice were meant to dance upon a gilded
stage, skirted in satin, hailed by cupids; and girls like me
were made to sit in the gallery, dark and anonymous, and
watch them.
Or so, anyway, I thought then.
The routine I have described - the routine of prising and
bearding and cooking and serving, and Saturday-night visits
to the music hall - is the one that I remember most from my
girlhood; but it was, of course, only a winter one. From
May to August, when British natives must be left to spawn,
the dredging smacks pull down their sails or put to sea in
search of other quarry; and oyster-parlours all over England
are obliged, in consequence, to change their menus or close
their doors. The business that my father did between
autumn and spring, though excellent enough, was not so
good that he could afford to shut his shop throughout the
summer and take a holiday; but, like many Whitstable
families whose fortunes depended upon the sea and its
bounty, there was a noticeable easing of our labours in the
warmer months, a kind of shifting into a slower, looser,
gayer key. The restaurant grew less busy. We served crab
and plaice and turbot and herrings, rather than oysters, and
the filleting was kinder work than the endless scrubbing and
shelling of the winter months. We kept our windows raised,
and the kitchen door thrown open; we were neither boiled
alive by the steam of the cooking-pots, nor numbed and
frozen by barrels of oyster-ice, as we were in winter, but
gently cooled by the breezes, and soothed by the sound of
fluttering canvas and ringing pulleys that drifted into our
kitchen from Whitstable Bay.
The summer in which I turned eighteen was a warm one,
and grew warmer as the weeks advanced. For days at a time
Father left the shop for Mother to run, and set up a cockleand-whelk stall on the beach. Alice and I were free to visit
the Canterbury Palace every night if we cared to; but just as
no one that July wanted to eat fried fish and lobster soup in
our stuffy Parlour, so the very thought of passing an hour or
two in gloves and bonnet, beneath the flaring gasoliers of
Tricky Reeves's airless music hall, made us gasp and droop
and prickle.
There are more similarities between a fishmonger's trade
and a music-hall manager's than you might think. When
Father changed his stock to suit his patrons' dulled and
over-heated palates, so did Tricky. He paid half of his
performers off, and brought in a host of new artistes from
the music halls of Chatham, Margate and Dover; most
cleverly of all, he secured a one-week contract with a real
celebrity, from London: Gully Sutherland — one of the best
comic singers in the business, and a guaranteed hall-filler
even in the hottest of hot Kentish summers.
Alice and I visited the Palace on the very first night of
Gully Sutherland's week. By this time we had an
arrangement with the lady in the ticket-booth: we gave her
a nod and a smile as we arrived, then sauntered past her
window and chose any seat in the hall beyond that we
fancied. Usually, this was somewhere in the gallery. I could
never understand the attraction of the stalls ticket; it seemed
unnatural to me to seat oneself below the stage, and have to
peer up at the artistes from a level somewhere near their
ankles, through the faint, shimmering haze of heat that rose
above the footlights. The circle gave a better view, but the
gallery, though further away, to my mind gave the best of
all; and there were two seats in the front row, at the very
centre of the gallery, that Alice and I particular favoured.
Here you knew yourself to be not just at a show but in a
theatre: you caught the shape of the stage and the sweep of
the seats; and you marvelled to see your neighbours' faces,
and to know your own to be like theirs - all queerly lit by
the glow of the footlights, and a damp at the lip, and with a
grin upon it, like that of a demon at some hellish revue.
It was certainly as hot as hell in the Canterbury Palace on
Gully Sutherland's opening night - so hot that, when Alice
and I leaned over the gallery rail to gaze at the audience
below, we were met by a blast of tobacco- and sweatscented air, that made us reel and cough. The theatre, as
Tony's uncle had calculated, was almost full; yet it was
strangely hushed. People spoke in murmurs, or not at all.
When one looked from the gallery to the circle and the
stalls, one saw only the flap of hats and programmes. The
flapping didn't stop when the orchestra struck up its few
bars of overture and the house lights dimmed; but it slowed
a little, and people sat up rather straighter in their seats. The
hush of fatigue became a silence of expectation.
The Palace was an old-fashioned music hall and, like many
such places in the 1880s, still employed a chairman. This,
of course, was Tricky himself: he sat at a table between the
stalls and the orchestra and introduced the acts, and called
for order if the crowd became too rowdy, and led us in
toasts to the Queen. He had a top-hat and a gavel - I have
never seen a chairman without a gavel - and a mug of
porter. On his table stood a candle: this was kept lit for as
long as there were artistes upon the stage, but it was
extinguished for the interval, and at the show's close.
Tricky was a plain-faced man with a very handsome voice a voice like the sound of a clarinet, at once liquid and
penetrating, and lovely to listen to. On the night of
Sutherland's first performance he welcomed us to his show
and promised us an evening's entertainment we would
never forget. Had we lungs? he asked. We must be prepared
to use them! Had we feet, and hands? We must make ready
to stamp, and clap! Had we sides? They would be split!
Tears? We would shed buckets of them! Eyes?
'Stretch 'em, now, in wonder! Orchestra, please. Limesmen, if you will.' He struck the table with his gavel - clack!so that the candle-flame dipped. 'I give you, the marvellous,
the musical, the very, very merry, Merry" - he struck the
table again -'Randalls!'
The curtain quivered, then rose. There was a seaside
backdrop to the stage and, upon the boards themselves, real
sand; and over this strolled four gay figures in holiday gear:
two ladies - one dark, one fair - with parasols; and two tall
gents, one with a ukulele on a strap. They sang 'All the
Girls are Lovely by the Seaside", very nicely; then the
ukulele player did a solo, and the ladies lifted their skirts
for a spot of soft-shoe dancing on the sand. For a first turn,
they were good. We cheered them; and Tricky thanked us
very graciously for our appreciation.
The next act was a comedian, the next a mentalist - a lady
in evening dress and gloves, who stood blindfolded upon
the stage while her husband moved among the audience
with a slate, inviting people to write numbers and names
upon it with a piece of chalk, for her to guess.
'Imagine the number floating through the air in flames of
scarlet,' said the man impressively, 'and searing its way into
my wife's brain, through her brow.' We frowned and
squinted at the stage, and the lady staggered a little, and
raised her hands to her temples.
The Power," she said, 'it is very strong tonight. Ah, I feel it
After this there was an acrobatic troupe - three men in
spangles who turned somersaults through hoops, and stood
on one another's shoulders. At the climax of their act they
formed a kind of human loop, and rolled about the stage to
a tune from the orchestra. We clapped at that; but it was too
hot for acrobatics, and there was a general shuffling and
whispering throughout this act, as boys were sent with
orders to the bar, and returned with bottles and glasses and
mugs that had to be handed, noisily, down the rows, past
heads and laps and grasping fingers. I glanced at Alice: she
had removed her hat and was fanning herself with it, and
her cheeks were very red. I pushed my own little bonnet to
the back of my head, leaned upon the rail before me with
my chin upon my knuckles, and closed my eyes. I heard
Tricky rise and call for silence with his gavel.
'Ladies and gentlemen," he cried, 'a little treat for you now.
A little bit of helegance and top-drawer style. If you've
champagne in your glasses' - there was an ironical cheering
at this -'raise them now. If you've beer - why, beer's got
bubbles, don't it? Raise that too! Above all, raise your
voices, as I give to you, direct from the Phoenix Theatre,
Dover, our very own Kentish swell, our diminutive
Faversham masher . . . Miss Kitty' -clack!- 'Butler!'
There was a burst of handclapping and a few damp whoops.
The orchestra struck up with some jolly number, and I
heard the creak and whisper of the rising curtain. All
unwillingly I opened my eyes - then I opened them wider,
and lifted my head. The heat, my weariness, were quite
forgotten. Piercing the shadows of the naked stage was a
single shaft of rosy limelight, and in the centre of this there
was a girl: the most marvellous girl - I knew it at once! that I had ever seen.
Of course, we had had male impersonator turns at the
Palace before; but in 1888, in the provincial halls, the
masher acts were not the things they are today. When Nelly
Power had sung The Last of the Dandies' to us six months
before she had worn tights and bullion fringe, just like a
ballet-girl - only carried a cane and a billycock hat to make
her boyish. Kitty Butler did not wear tights or spangles. She
was, as Tricky had billed her, a kind of perfect West-End
swell. She wore a suit -a handsome gentleman's suit, cut to
her size, and lined at the cuffs and the flaps with flashing
silk. There was a rose in her lapel, and lavender gloves at
her pocket. From beneath her waistcoat shone a stifffronted shirt of snowy white, with a stand-up collar two
inches high. Around the collar was a white bow-tie; and on
her head there was a topper. When she took the topper off as she did now to salute the audience with a gay 'Hallo!' one saw that her hair was perfectly cropped.
It was the hair, I think, which drew me most. If I had ever
seen women with hair as short as hers, it was because they
had spent time in hospital or prison; or because they were
mad. They could never have looked like Kitty Butler. Her
hair fitted her head like a little cap that had been sewn, just
for her, by some nimble-fingered milliner. I would say it
was brown; brown, however, is too dull a word for it. It
was, rather, the kind of brown you might hear sung about a nut-brown, or a russet. It was almost, perhaps, the colour
of chocolate - but then chocolate has no lustre, and this hair
shone in the blaze of the limes like taffeta. It curled at her
temple, slightly, and over her ears; and when she turned her
head a little to put her hat back on, I saw a strip of pale
flesh at the nape of her neck where the collar ended and the
hairline began that - for all the fire of the hot, hot hall made me shiver.
She looked, I suppose, like a very pretty boy, for her face
was a perfect oval, and her eyes were large and dark at the
lashes, and her lips were rosy and full. Her figure, too, was
boy-like and slender - yet rounded, vaguely but
unmistakably, at the bosom, the stomach, and the hips, in a
way no real boy's ever was; and her shoes, I noticed after a
moment, had two-inch heels to them. But she strode like a
boy, and stood like one, with her feet far apart and her
hands thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets, and her
head at an arrogant angle, at the very front of the stage; and
when she sang, her voice was a boy's voice - sweet and
terribly true.
Her effect upon that over-heated hall was wonderful. Like
me, my neighbours all sat up, and gazed at her with shining
eyes. Her songs were all well-chosen ones - things like
'Drink Up, Boys!', and 'Sweethearts and Wives', which the
likes of G. H. Macdermott had already made famous, and
with which we could all, in consequence, join in - though it
was peculiarly thrilling to have them sung to us, not by a
gent, but by a girl, in neck-tie and trousers. In between each
song she addressed herself, in a swaggering, confidential
tone, to the audience, and exchanged little bits of nonsense
with Tricky Reeves at his chairman's table. Her speaking
voice was like her singing one -strong and healthy, and
wonderfully warm upon the ear. Her accent was sometimes
sometimes pure broad Kent.
Her set lasted no longer than the customary fifteen minutes
or so, but she was cheered and shouted back on to the stage
at the end of that time twice over. Her final song was a
gentle one - a ballad about roses and a lost sweetheart. As
she sang she removed her hat and held it to her bosom; then
she pulled the flower from her lapel and placed it against
her cheek, and seemed to weep a little. The audience, in
sympathy, let out one huge collective sigh, and bit their lips
to hear her boyish tones grow suddenly so tender.
All at once, however, she raised her eyes and gazed at us
over her knuckles: we saw that she wasn't'weeping at all,
but smiling - and then, suddenly, winking, hugely and
roguishly. Very swiftly she stepped once again to the front
of the stage, and gazed into the stalls for the prettiest girl.
When she found her, she raised her hand and the rose went
flying over the shimmer of the footlights, over the
orchestra-pit, to land in the pretty girl's lap.
We went wild for her then. We roared and stamped and she,
all gallant, raised her hat to us and, waving, took her leave.
We called for her, but there were no more encores. The
curtain fell, the orchestra played; Tricky struck his gavel
upon his table, blew out his candle, and it was the interval.
I peered, blinking, into the seats below, trying to catch sight
of the girl who had been thrown the flower. I could not
think of anything more wonderful, at that moment, than to
receive a rose from Kitty Butler's hand.
I had gone to the Palace, like everyone else that night, to
see Gully Sutherland; but when he made his appearance at
last -mopping his brow with a giant spotted handkerchief,
complaining about the Canterbury heat and sending the
audience into fits of sweaty laughter with his comical songs
and his face-pulling -1 found that, after all, I hadn't the
heart for him. I wished only that Miss Butler would stride
upon the stage again, to fix us with her elegant, arrogant
gaze - to sing to us about champagne, and shouting
'Hurrah!' at the races. The thought made me restless. At last
Alice - who was laughing at Gully's grimaces as loudly as
everybody else - put her mouth to my ear: 'What's up with
'I'm hot,' I said; and then: 'I'm going downstairs.' And while
she sat on for the rest of the turn, I went slowly down to the
empty lobby - there to stand with my cheek against the cool
glass of the door, and to sing again, to myself, Miss Butler's
song, 'Sweethearts and Wives'.
Soon there came the roars and stamps that meant the end of
Gully's set; and after a moment Alice appeared, still fanning
herself with her bonnet, and blowing at the dampened curls
which clung to her pink cheeks. She gave me a wink: 'Let's
call on Tony.' I followed her to his little room, and sat and
idly twisted in the chair behind his desk, while he stood
with his arm about her waist. There was a bit of chat about
Mr Sutherland and his spotted handkerchief; then, 'What
about that Kitty Butler, eh?' said Tony. 'Ain't she a
smasher? If she carries on tickling the crowd like she did
tonight, I tell you, Uncle'll be extending her contract till
At that I stopped my twirling. 'She's the best turn I ever
saw," I said, 'here or anywhere! Tricky would be a fool to
let her go: you tell him from me.' Tony laughed, and said he
would be sure to; but as he said it I saw him wink at Alice,
then let his gaze dally, rather spoonily, over her lovely face.
I looked away, and sighed, and said quite guilelessly: 'Oh, I
do wish that I might see Miss Butler again!'
'And so you shall,' said Alice, 'on Saturday.' We had all
planned to come to the Palace - Father, Mother, Davy, Fred,
everyone - on Saturday night. I plucked at my glove.
'I know,' I said. 'But Saturday seems so very far away
Tony laughed again. 'Well, Nance, and who said you had to
wait so long? You can come tomorrow night if you like and any other night you please, so far as I'm concerned.
And if there ain't a seat for you in the gallery, why, we'll
put you in a box at the side of the stage, and you can gaze at
Miss Butler to your heart's content from there!'
He spoke, I'm sure, to impress my sister; but my heart gave
a strange kind of twist at his words. I said, 'Oh, Tony, do
you really mean it?'
'Of course.'
'And really in a box?'
'Why not? Between you and me, the only customers we
ever get for those seats are the Wood family and the
Plushes. You sit in a box, and make sure the audience gets a
look at you: it might give them ideas above their station.'
'It might give Nancy ideas above her station,' said Alice.
'We couldn't have that.' Then she laughed, as Tony
tightened his grip about her waist and leaned to kiss her.
It would not have been quite the thing, I suppose, for city
girls to go to music halls unchaperoned; but people weren't
so very prim about things like that in Whitstable. Mother
only gave a frown and a mild tut-tut when I spoke, next
day, of returning to the Palace; Alice laughed and declared
that I was mad: she wouldn't come with me, she said, to sit
all night in the smoke and the heat for the sake of a glimpse
of a girl in trousers - a girl whose turn we had seen and
songs we had listened to not four-and-twenty hours before.
I was shocked by her carelessness, but secretly rather glad
at the thought of gazing again at Miss Butler, all alone. I
was also more thrilled than I cared to let on by Tony's
promise that I might sit in a box. For my trip to the theatre
the night before I had worn a rather ordinary dress; now,
however - it had been a slow day in the Parlour, and Father
let us shut the shop at six - I put on my Sunday frock, the
frock I usually wore to go out walking in with Freddy.
Davy whistled when I came down all dressed up; and there
were one or two boys who tried to catch my eye all through
the ride to Canterbury. But I knew myself - for this one
night, at least! - apart from them. When I reached the
Palace I nodded to the ticket-girl, as usual; but then I left
my favourite gallery seat for someone else to sweat in, and
made my way to the side of the stage, to a chair of gilt and
scarlet plush. And here - rather unnervingly exposed, as it
turned out, before the idle, curious or envious gaze of the
whole, restless hall - here I sat, while the Merry Randalls
shuffled to the same songs as before, the comic told his
jokes, the mentalist staggered, the acrobats dived. Then
Tricky bade us welcome, once again, our very own Kentish
swell... and I held my breath.
This time, when she called 'Hallo!' the crowd replied with a
great, genial roar: word must have spread, I think, of her
success. My view of her now, of course, was side-on and
rather queer; but when she strode, as before, to the front of
the stage it seemed to me her step was lighter - as if the
admiration of the audience lent her wings. I leaned towards
her, my fingers hard upon the velvet of my unfamiliar seat.
The boxes at the Palace were very close to the stage: all the
time she sang, she was less than twenty feet away from me.
I could make out all the lovely details of her costume - the
watch-chain, looped across the buttons of her waistcoat, the
silver links that fastened her cuffs - that I had missed from
my old place up in the gallery.
I saw her features, too, more clearly. I saw her ears, which
were rather small and unpierced. I saw her lips - saw, now,
that they were not naturally rosy, but had of course been
carmined for the footlights. I saw that her teeth were
creamy-white; and that her eyes were brown as chocolate,
like her hair.
Because I knew what to expect from her set - and because I
spent so much time watching her, rather than listening to
her songs - it seemed over in a moment. She was called
back, once again, for two encores, and she finished, as
before, with the sentimental ballad and the tossing of the
rose. This time I saw who caught it: a girl in the third row, a
girl in a straw hat with feathers on it, and a dress of yellow
satin that was cut at the shoulders and showing her arms. A
lovely girl I had never seen before but felt ready at that
moment to despise!
I looked back to Kitty Butler. She had her topper raised and
was making her final, sweeping salute. Notice me, I
thought. Notice me! I spelled the words in my head in
scarlet letters, as the husband of the mentalist had advised,
and sent them burning into her forehead like a brand.
Notice me!
She turned. Her eyes flicked once my way, as if to note
only that the box, empty last night, was occupied now; and
then she ducked beneath the dropping crimson of the
curtain and was gone.
Tricky blew out his candle.
'Well,' said Alice a little later, as I stepped into our parlour our real parlour, not the oyster-house downstairs - 'and how
was Kitty Butler tonight?'
'Just the same as last night, I should think,' said Father.
'Not at all,' I said, pulling off my gloves. 'She was even
'Even better, my word! If she carries on like that, just think
how good she'll be by Saturday!'
Alice gazed at me, her lip twitching. 'D'you think you can
wait till then, Nancy?' she asked.
'I can,' I said with a show of carelessness, 'but I'm not sure
that I shall.' I turned to my mother, who sat sewing by the
empty grate. 'You won't mind, will you,' I said lightly, 'if I
go back again tomorrow night?'
'Back again?' said everyone in amusement. I looked only at
Mother. She had raised her head and now regarded me with
a little puzzled frown.
'I don't see why not,' she said slowly. 'But really, Nancy, all
that way, just for one turn... And all on your own, too. Can't
you get Fred to take you along?'
Fred was the last person I wanted at my side, the next time I
saw Kitty Butler. I said, 'Oh he won't want to see an act like
that! No, I shall go on my own.' I said it rather firmly, as if
going to the Palace every night was some chore I had been
set to do and I had generously decided to do it with the
minimum of bother and complaint.
There was a second's almost awkward silence. Then Father
said, 'You are a funny little thing, Nancy. All the way to
Canterbury in the sweltering heat - and not even to wait for
a glimpse of Gully Sutherland when you get there!' And at
that, everybody laughed, and the second's awkwardness
passed, and the conversation turned to other things.
There were more cries of disbelief, however, and more
smiles, when I came home from my third trip to the Palace
and announced, shyly, my intention of returning there a
fourth time, and a fifth. Uncle Joe was visiting us: he was
pouring beer from a bottle, carefully, into a tilted glass, but
looked up when he heard the laughter.
'What's all this?' he said.
'Nancy's mashed out on that Kitty Butler, at the Palace,' said
Davy. 'Imagine that, Uncle Joe - being mashed on a
I said, 'You shut up.'
Mother looked sharp. 'You shut up, please, madam.'
Uncle Joe took a sip of his beer, then licked the froth from
his whiskers. 'Kitty Butler?' he said. 'She's the gal what
dresses up as a feller, ain't she?' He pulled a face. 'Pooh,
Nancy, the real thing not good enough for you any more?'
Father leaned towards him. 'Well, we are told it is Kitty
Butler,' he said. 'If you ask me' - and here he winked and
rubbed his nose - 'I think there's a young chap in the
orchestra pit what she's got her eye on ..."
'Ah,' said Joe, significantly. 'Let's hope poor Frederick don't
catch on to it, then ..."
At that, everybody looked my way, and I blushed - and so
seemed, I suppose, to prove my father's words. Davy
snorted; Mother, who had frowned before, now smiled. I let
her - I let them all think just what they liked - and said
nothing; and soon, as before, the talk turned to other
I could deceive my parents and my brother with my
silences; from my sister Alice, however, I could keep
'Is there a feller you've got your eye on, at the Palace?' she
asked me later, when the rest of the house lay hushed and
'Of course not,' I said quietly.
'It's just Miss Butler, then, that you go to see?'
There was a silence, broken only by the distant rumble of
wheels and faint thud of hooves, from the High Street, and
the even fainter sucking whoosh of sea against shingle from
the bay. We had put out our candle but left the window
wide and unshuttered. I saw in the gleam of starlight that
Alice's eyes were open. She was gazing at me with an
ambiguous expression that seemed half amusement, half
'You're rather keen on her, ain't you?' she said then.
I looked away, and didn't answer her at once. When I spoke
at last it was not to her at all, but to the darkness.
'When I see her,' I said, 'it's like -I don't know what it's like.
It's like I never saw anything at all before. It's like I am
filling up, like a wine-glass when it's filled with wine. I
watch the acts before her and they are like nothing - they're
like dust. Then she walks on the stage and - she is so pretty;
and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet. . . She
makes me want to smile and weep, at once. She makes me
sore, here.' I placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breastbone. 'I never saw a girl like her before. I never knew that
there were girls like her . . .' My voice became a trembling
whisper then, and I found that I could say no more.
There was another silence. I opened my eyes and looked at
Alice - and knew at once that I shouldn't have spoken; that I
should have been as dumb and as cunning with her as with
the rest of them. There was a look on her face - it was not
ambiguous at all now - a look of mingled shock, and
nervousness, and embarrassment or shame. I had said too
much. I felt as if my admiration for Kitty Butler had lit a
beacon inside me, and opening my unguarded mouth had
sent a shaft of light into the darkened room, illuminating
I had said too much - but it was that, or say nothing. Alice's
eyes held my own for a moment longer, then her lashes
fluttered and fell. She didn't speak; she only rolled away
from me, and faced the wall.
The weather continued very fierce that week. The sun
brought trippers to Whitstable and to our Parlour, but the
heat jaded their appetites. They called as often, now, for tea
and lemonade, as for plaice and mackerel, and for hours at a
time I would leave Mother and Alice to work the shop, and
run down to the beach to ladle out cockles and crab-meat
and whelks, and bread-and-butter, at Father's stall. It was a
novelty, serving teas upon the shingle; but it was also hard
to stand in the sun, with the vinegar running from your
wrists to your elbows, and your eyes smarting from the
fumes of it. Father gave me an extra half-crown for every
afternoon I worked there. I bought a hat, and a length of
lavender ribbon with which to trim it, but the rest of the
money I put aside: I would use it, when I had enough, to
buy a season ticket for the Canterbury train.
For I made my nightly trips all through that week, and sat as Tony put it - with the Plushes, and gazed at Kitty Butler
as she sang; and I never once grew tired of her. It was only,
always, marvellous to step again into my little scarlet box;
to gaze at the bank of faces, and the golden arch above the
stage, and the velvet drapes and tassels, and the stretch of
dusty floorboard with its row of lights - like open cockle
shells, I always thought them - before which I would soon
see Kitty stride and swagger and wave her hat . . . Oh! and
when she stepped on stage at last, there would be that rush
of gladness so swift and sharp I would catch my breath to
feel it, and grow faint.
That is how it was on my solitary visits; but on Saturday, of
course, as we had planned, my family came - and that was
rather different.
There were nearly twelve of us in all - more by the time we
reached the theatre and took our seats, for we met friends
and neighbours on the train and at the ticket-booth, and they
attached themselves to our gay party, like barnacles. There
wasn't room for us to sit in one long line: we spread
ourselves about in groups of threes and fours, so that when
one person asked Did we care for a cherry? or Did Mother
have her eau-de-cologne? or Why had Millicent not brought
Jim? the message must be passed, in a shriek or a whisper,
all along the gallery, from cousin to cousin, from aunt to
sister to uncle to friend, disturbing all the rows along the
So, anyway, it seemed to me. My seat was between Fred
and Alice with Davy and his girl, Rhoda, on Alice's left,
and Mother and Father behind. It was crowded in the hall
and still very hot - though cooler than it had been on the
previous, sweltering Monday night; but I, who had had a
box to myself for a week, with the draught from the stage to
chill me, seemed to feel the heat more than anyone. Fred's
hand upon mine, or his lips at my cheek, I found
unbearable, like blasts of steam rather than caresses; even
the pressure of Alice's sleeve against my arm, and the
warmth of Father's face against my neck as he leaned to ask
us our opinion of the show, made me flinch, and sweat, and
squirm in my seat.
It was as if I had been forced to pass the evening amongst
strangers. Their pleasure in the details of the show - which I
had sat through so often, so impatiently - struck me as
incomprehensible, idiotic. When they sang out the chorus
along with the maddening Merry Randalls, and shrieked
with laughter at the comedian's jokes; when they gazed
round-eyed at the staggering mentalist and called the
human loop back on to the stage for another tumble, I
chewed my nails. As Kitty Butler's appearance grew more
imminent, I became ever more agitated and more wretched.
I could not but long for her to step upon the stage again; but
I wished, too, that I might be alone when she did so - alone
in my little box with the door shut fast behind me - rather
than seated in the midst of a crowd of people to whom she
was nothing, and who thought my particular passion for her
only queer, or quaint.
They had heard me sing 'Sweethearts and Wives' a
thousand times; they had heard me tell the details of her
costume, of her hair and voice; I had burned all week to
have them see her, and pronounce her marvellous. Now that
they were gathered here, however, gay and careless and hot
and loud, I despised them. I could hardly bear for them to
look upon her at all; worse still, I thought I couldn't endure
to have them look upon me, as I watched her. I had that
sensation again, that there had grown a lantern or a beacon
inside me. I was sure that when she stepped upon the stage
it would be like putting a match to the wick, and I would
flare up, golden and incandescent but somehow painfully
and shamefully bright; and my family and my beau would
shrink away from me, appalled.
Of course, when she strode before the footlights at last, no
such thing occurred. I saw Davy look my way and give a
wink, and heard Father's whisper: 'Here's the very gal, then,
at last'; but when I glowed and sparkled it was evidently
with a dark and secret flame which no one - except Alice,
perhaps -looked for or saw.
As I had feared, however, I felt horribly far from Miss
Butler that night. Her voice was as strong, her face as
lovely, as before; but I had been used to hearing the breaths
she drew between the phrases, used to catching the glimmer
of the limes upon her lip, the shadow of her lashes on her
powdered cheek. Now I felt as though I was watching her
through a pane of glass, or with my ears stopped up with
wax. When she finished her set my family cheered, and
Freddy stamped his feet and whistled. Davy called, 'Stone
me, if she ain't just as wonderful as Nancy painted her!' then he leaned across Alice's lap to wink and add, Though
not so wonderful that I'd spend a shilling a week on train
tickets to come and see her every night!' I didn't answer
him. Kitty Butler had come back for her encore, and had
already drawn the rose from her lapel; but it was no comfort
to me at all to know my family liked her - indeed, it made
me more wretched still. I gazed again at the figure in the
shaft of limelight and thought quite bitterly, you would be
marvellous, if I were here or not. You would be marvellous,
without my admiration. I might as well be at home, putting
crab-meat in a paper cone, for all you know of me!
But even as I thought it, something rather curious
happened. She had reached the end of her song - there was
the business with the flower and the pretty girl; and when
this was done she wheeled into the wing. And as she did it I
saw her head go up - and she looked - looked, I swear it towards the empty chair in which I usually sat, then
lowered her head and moved on. If I had only been in my
box tonight, I would have had her eyes upon me! If I had
only been in my box, instead of here -!
I glanced at Davy and Father: they were both on their feet
calling for more; but letting their calls die, and beginning to
stretch. Beside me Freddy was still smiling at the stage. His
hair was plastered to his forehead, his lip was dark where
he was letting whiskers grow; his cheek was red and had a
pimple on it. 'Ain't she a peach?' he said to me. Then he
rubbed his eyes, and shouted to Davy for a beer. Behind me
I heard Mother ask, How did the lady in the evening dress
read all those numbers with a blindfold on?
The cheers were fading, Tricky's candle was out; the
gasoliers flared, making us blink. Kitty Butler had looked
for me - had raised her head and looked for me; and I was
lost and sitting with strangers.
I spent the next day, Sunday, at the cockle-stall; and when
Freddy called that night to ask me out walking, I said I was
too tired. That day was cooler, and by Monday the weather
seemed really to have broken. Father came back to the
Parlour full-time, and I spent the day in the kitchen, gutting
and filleting. We worked till almost seven: I had just
enough time between the closing of the shop and the
leaving of the Canterbury train to change my dress, to pull
on a pair of elastic-sided boots and to sit down with Father
and Mother, Alice, Davy and Rhoda for a hasty supper.
They thought it more than strange, I knew, that I should be
returning to the Palace yet again; Rhoda, in particular,
seemed greatly tickled by the story of my 'mash'. 'Don't you
mind her going, Mrs Astley?' she asked. 'My mother would
never let me go so far alone; and I am two years older. But
then, Nancy is such a steady sort of girl, I suppose.' I had
been a steady girl; it was over Alice - saucy Alice - that my
parents usually worried. But at Rhoda's words I saw Mother
look me over and grow thoughtful. I had on my Sunday
dress, and my new hat trimmed with lavender; and I had a
lavender bow at the end of my plait of hair, and a bow of
the same ribbon sewn on each of my white linen gloves.
My boots were black with a wonderful shine. I had put a
spot of Alice's perfume - eau de rose - behind each ear; and
I had darkened my lashes with castor oil from the kitchen.
Mother said, 'Nancy, do you really think -?' But as she
spoke the clock on the mantel gave a ting! It was a quarterpast seven, I should miss my train.
I said, 'Good-bye! Good-bye!' - and fled, before she could
delay me.
I missed my train anyway, and had to wait at the station till
the later one came. When I reached the Palace the show had
begun: I took my seat to find the acrobats already on the
stage forming their loop, their spangles gleaming, their
white suits dusty at the knees. There was clapping; Tricky
rose to say -what he said every night, so that half the
audience smiled and said it with him - that You couldn't get
many of those to the pound! Then - as if it were part of the
overture to her routine and she could not work without it -I
gripped my seat and held my breath, while he raised his
gavel to beat out Kitty Butler's name.
She sang that night like -I cannot say like an angel, for her
songs were all of champagne suppers and strolling in the
Burlington Arcade; perhaps, then, like a fallen angel - or
yet again like a falling one: she sang like a falling angel
might sing with the hounds of heaven fresh burst behind
him, and hell still distant and unguessed. And as she did so,
I sang with her - not loudly and carelessly like the rest of
the crowd, but softly, almost secretly, as if she might hear
me the better if I whispered rather than bawled.
And perhaps, after all, she did. I had thought that, when she
walked on to the stage, she had glanced my way - as much
as to say, the box is filled again. Now, as she wheeled
before the footlights, I thought I saw her look at me again.
The idea was a fantastic one - and yet every time her gaze
swept the crowded hall it seemed to brush my own, and
dally with it a little longer than it should. I ceased my
whispered singing and merely stared, and swallowed. I saw
her leave the stage -again, her gaze met mine - and then
return for her encore. She sang her ballad and plucked the
flower from her lapel, and held it to her cheek, as we all
expected. But when her song was finished she did not peer
into the stalls for the handsomest girl, as she usually did.
Instead, she took a step to her left, towards the box in which
I sat. And then she took another. In a moment she had
reached the corner of the stage, and stood facing me; she
was so close I could see the glint of her collar-stud, the beat
of the pulse in her throat, the pink at the corner of her eye.
She stood there for what seemed to be a small eternity; then
her arm came up, the flower flashed for a second in the
beam of the lime - and my own hand, trembling, rose to
catch it. The crowd gave a broad, indulgent cheer of
pleasure, and a laugh. She held my flustered gaze with her
own more certain one, and made me a little bow. Then she
stepped backwards suddenly, waved to the hall, and left us.
I sat for a moment as if stunned, my eyes upon the flower in
my hand, which had been so near, so recently, to Kitty
Butler's cheek. I wanted to raise it to my own face - and
was about to, I think, when the clatter of the hall pierced
my brain at last, and made me look about me and see the
inquisitive, indulgent looks that were turned my way, and
the nods and the chuckles and the winks that met my upturned gaze. I reddened, and shrank back into the shadows
of the box. With my back turned to the bank of prying eyes
I slipped the rose into the belt of my dress, and pulled on
my gloves. My heart, which had begun to pound when Miss
Butler had stepped towards me across the stage, was still
beating painfully hard; but as I left my box and made my
way towards the crowded foyer and the street beyond, it
began to feel light, and glad, and I began to want to smile. I
had to place a hand before my lips so as not to appear an
idiot, smiling to myself as if at nothing.
Just as I was about to step into the street, I heard my name
called. I turned, and saw Tony, crossing the lobby with his
arm raised to catch my eye. It was a relief to have a friend,
at last, to smile at. I took the hand away, and grinned like a
'Hey, hey,' he said breathlessly when he reached my side,
'someone's merry, and I know why! How come girls never
look so gay as that, when / give them roses?' I blushed
again, and returned my fingers to my lips, but said nothing.
Tony smirked.
'I've got a message for you,' he said then. 'Someone to see
you.' I raised my eyebrows; I thought perhaps Alice or
Freddy were here, come to meet me. Tony's smirk
broadened. 'Miss Butler,' he said, 'would like a word.'
My own grin faded at once. 'A word?' I said. 'Miss Butler?
With me?'
That's right. She asked Ike, the fly-man, who was the girl
that sat in the box every night, on her own, and Ike said you
was a pal of mine, and to ask me. So she did. And I told
her. And now she wants to see you.'
'What for? Oh, Tony, what on earth for? What did you tell
her?' I caught hold of his arm and gripped it hard.
'Nothing, except the truth -' I gave his arm a twist. The truth
was terrible. I didn't want her to know about the shivering
and the whispering, the flame and the streaming light. Tony
prised my fingers from his sleeve, and held my hand. 'Just
that you like her,' he said simply. 'Now will you come
along, or what?'
I did not know what to say. So I said nothing, but let him
lead me away from the great glass doors with the blue, cool,
Canterbury night behind them, past the archway that led to
the stalls, and the staircase to the gallery, towards an alcove
in the far corner of the foyer, with a curtain across it, and a
rope before it, and a sign swinging from the rope, marked
Chapter 2
I had been back stage at the Palace with Tony once or twice
before, but only in the daytime, when the hall was dim and
quite deserted. Now the corridors along which I walked
with him were full of light and noise. We passed one
doorway that led, I knew, to the stage itself: I caught a
glimpse of ladders and ropes and trailing gas-pipes; of boys
in caps and aprons, wheeling baskets, manoeuvring lights. I
had the sensation then - and I felt it again in the years that
followed, every time I made a similar trip back stage - that I
had stepped into the workings of a giant clock, stepped
through the elegant casing to the dusty, greasy, restless
machinery that lay, all hidden from the common eye,
behind it.
Tony led me down a passageway that stopped at a metal
staircase, and here he paused to let three men go by. They
wore hats and carried overcoats and bags; they were sallowfaced and poor-looking, with a patina of flashness - I
thought they might be salesmen carrying sample-cases.
Only when they had moved on, and I heard them sharing a
joke with the stage door-keeper, did I realise that they were
the trio of tumblers taking their leave for the night, and that
their bags contained their spangles. I had a sudden fear that
Kitty Butler might after all be just like them: plain,
unremarkable, almost I unrecognisable as the handsome girl
I had seen swaggering in the glow of the footlights. I very
nearly called to Tony to take me back; but he had
descended the staircase, and when I caught up with him in
the passageway below he was at a door, and had already
turned its handle.
The door was one of a row of others, indistinguishable from
its neighbours but for a brass figure 7, very old and
scratched, that was screwed at eye level upon its centre
panel, and a hand-written card that had been tacked below.
Miss Kitty Butler, it said.
I found her seated at a little table before a looking-glass;
she had half-turned - to reply, I suppose, to Tony's knock but at my approach she rose, and reached to shake my hand.
She was a little shorter than me, even in her heels, and
younger than I had imagined - perhaps my sister's age, of
one- or two-and-twenty.
'Aha,' she said, when Tony had left us - there was a hint,
still, of her footlight manner in her voice - 'my mystery
admirer! I was sure it must be Gully you came to see; then
someone said you never stay beyond the interval. Is it really
me you stay for? I never had a fan before!' As she spoke she
leaned quite comfortably against the table - it was cluttered,
I now saw, with jars of cream and sticks of grease-paint,
with playing cards and half-smoked cigarettes and filthy
tea-cups - and crossed her legs at the ankle, and folded her
arms. Her face was still thickly powdered, and very red at
the lip; her lashes and eyelids were black with paint. She
was dressed in the trousers and the shoes that she had worn
for her act, but she had removed the jacket, the waistcoat,
and, of course, the hat. Her starched shirt was held tight
against the swell of her bosom by a pair of braces, but
gaped at the throat where she had undipped her bow-tie.
Beyond the shirt I saw an edge of creamy lace.
I looked away. 'I do like your act,' I said.
'I should think you do, you come to it so often!'
I smiled. 'Well, Tony lets me in, you see, for nothing . . .'
That made her laugh: her tongue looked very pink, her teeth
extraordinarily white, against her painted lips. I felt myself
blush. 'What I mean is,' I said, 'Tony lets me have the box.
But I would pay if I had to, and sit in the gallery. For I do
so like your act, Miss Butler, so very, very much.'
Now she did not laugh, but she tilted her head a little. 'Do
you?' she answered gently.
'Oh, yes.'
Tell me what it is you like then, so much.'
I hesitated. 'I like your costume,' I said at last. 'I like your
songs, and the way you sing them. I like the way you talk to
Tricky. I like your . . . hair.' Here I stumbled; and now she
seemed to blush. There was a second's almost awkward
silence - then, suddenly, as if from somewhere very near at
hand, there came the sound of music - the blast of a horn
and the pulse of a drum - and a cheer, like the roaring of the
wind in some vast sea-shell. I gave a jump, and looked
about me; and she laughed. 'The second half," she said.
After a moment the cheering stopped; the music, however,
went on pulsing and thumping like a great heart-beat.
She left off leaning against the table, and asked, Did I mind
if she smoked? I shook my head, and shook it again when
she took up a packet of cigarettes from amongst the dirty
cups and playing cards, and held it to me. Upon the wall
there was a hissing gas-jet in a wire cage, and she put her
face to it, to light the cigarette. With the fag at the side of
her lip, her eyes screwed up against the flame, she looked
like a boy again; when she took the cigarette away,
however, the cork was smudged with crimson. Seeing that,
she tutted: 'Look at me, with all my paint still on! Will you
sit with me while I clean my face? It's not very polite, I
know, but I must get ready rather quick; my room is needed
later by another girl..."
I did as she asked, and sat and watched her smear her
cheeks with cream, then take a cloth to them. She worked
quickly and carefully, but distractedly; and as she rubbed at
her face she held my gaze in the glass. She looked at my
new hat and said, 'What a pretty bonnet!' Then she asked
how I knew Tony - was he my beau? I was shocked at that
and said, 'Oh, no! He is courting my sister'; and she
laughed. Where did I live? she asked me then. What did I
work at?
'I work in an oyster-house,' I said.
'An oyster-house!' The idea seemed to tickle her. Still
rubbing at her cheeks, she began to hum, and then to sing
very low beneath her breath.
'As I was going down Bishopgate Street, An oyster-girl I
happened to meet -'
A swipe at the crimson of her lip, the black of her lashes.
'Into her basket I happened to peep, To see if she'd got any
oysters . . .'
She sang on; then opened one eye very wide, and leaned
close to the glass to remove a stubborn crumb of spit-black
- her mouth stretching wide, out of a kind of sympathy with
her eyelids, and her breath misting the mirror. For a second
she seemed quite to have forgotten me. I studied the skin of
her face and her throat. It had emerged from its mask of
powder and grease the colour of cream - the colour of the
lace on her chemise; but it was darkened at the nose and
cheeks - and even, I saw, at the edge of her lip - by freckles,
brown as her hair. I had not suspected the existence of the
freckles. I found them wonderfully and inexplicably
She wiped her breath from the glass, then, and gave me a
wink, and asked me more about myself; and because it was
somehow easier to talk to her reflection than to her face, I
began at last to chat with her quite freely. At first she
answered as I thought an actress should - comfortably,
rather teasingly, laughing when I blushed or said a foolish
thing. Gradually, however - as if she was stripping the paint
from her voice, as well as from her face - her tone grew
milder, less pert and pressing. At last - she gave a yawn,
and rubbed her knuckles in her eyes - at last her voice was
just a girl's: melodious and strong and clear, but just a
Kentish girl's voice, like my own.
Like the freckles, it made her - not unremarkable, as I had
feared to find her; but marvellously, achingly real. Hearing
it, I understood at last my wildness of the past seven days. I
thought, how queer it is! - and yet, how very ordinary: I am
in love with you.
Soon her face was wiped quite bare, and her cigarette
smoked to the filter; and then she rose and put her fingers to
her hair. 'I had better change,' she said, almost shyly. I took
the hint, and said that I should go, and she walked the
couple of steps with me to the door.
'Thank you, Miss Astley,' she said - she already had my
name from Tony - 'for coming to see me.' She held out her
hand to me, and I lifted my own in response - then
remembered my glove - my glove with the lavender bows
upon it, to match my pretty hat - and quickly drew it off and
offered her my naked fingers. All at once she was the
gallant boy of the footlights again. She straightened her
back, made me a little bow, and raised my knuckles to her
I flushed with pleasure - until I saw her nostrils quiver, and
knew, suddenly, what she smelled: those rank sea-scents, of
liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had
flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many
years we had all ceased, entirely, to notice them. Now I had
thrust them beneath Kitty Butler's nose! I felt ready to die
of shame.
I made, at once, to pull my hand away; but she held it fast
in her own, still pressed to her lips, and laughed at me over
the knuckles. There was a look in her eye I could not quite
'You smell,' she began, slowly and wonderingly, 'like -'
'Like a herring!' I said bitterly. My cheeks were hot now
and very red; there were tears, almost, in my eyes. I think
she saw my confusion and was sorry for it.
'Not at all like a herring,' she said gently. 'But perhaps,
maybe, like a mermaid ..." And she kissed my fingers
properly, and this time I let her; and at last my blush faded,
and I smiled.
I put my glove back on. My fingers seemed to tingle against
the cloth. 'Will you come and see me again, Miss
Mermaid?' she asked. Her tone was light; incredibly,
however, she seemed to mean it. I said, Oh yes, I should
like that very much, and she nodded with something like
satisfaction. Then she made me another little bow, and we
said good-night; and she closed the door and was gone.
I stood quite still, facing the little 7, the hand-written card,
Miss Kitty Butler. I found myself unable to move from in
front of it - quite as unable as if I really were a mermaid
and had no legs to walk on, but a tail. I blinked. I had been
sweating, and the sweat, and the smoke of her cigarette, had
worked upon the castor oil on my lashes to make my eyelids very sore. I put my hand to them - the hand that she had
kissed; then I held my ringers to my nose and smelled
through the linen what she had smelled, and blushed again.
In the dressing-room all was silent. Then at last, very low,
came the sound of her voice. She was singing again the
song about the oyster-girl and the basket. But the song
came rather fitfully now, and I realised of course that as she
was singing she was stooping to unlace her boots, and
straightening to shrug her braces off, and perhaps kicking
free her trousers . . .
All this; and there was only the thickness of one slender
door between her body and my own smarting eyes!
It was that thought which made me find my legs at last, and
leave her.
Watching Miss Butler perform upon the stage after having
spoken to her, and been smiled at by her, and had her lips
upon my hand, was a strange experience, at once more and
less thrilling than it had been before. Her lovely voice, her
elegance, her swagger: I felt I had been given a kind of
secret share in them, and pinked complacently every time
the crowd roared their welcome or called her back on to the
stage for an encore. She threw me no more roses; these all
went, as before, to the pretty girls in the stalls. But I know
she saw me in my box, for I felt her eyes upon me,
sometimes, as she sang; and always, when she left the
stage, there was that sweep of her hat for the hall, and a
nod, or a wink, or the ghost of a smile, just for me.
But if I was complacent, I was also dissatisfied. I had seen
beyond the powder and the strut; it was terribly hard to
have to sit with common audiences as she sang, and have
no more of her than they. I burned to visit her again - yet
also feared to. She had invited me, but she hadn't named a
time; and I, in those days, was terribly anxious and shy. So
though I went as often as I was able to my box at the
Palace, and watched and applauded her as she sang, and
received those secret looks and tokens, it was a full week
before I made my way again back stage, and presented
myself, all pale, sweating and uncertain, at her dressingroom door.
But when I did so, she received me with such kindness, and
chided me so sincerely for having left her unvisited so long;
and we fell again to chatting so easily about her life in the
theatre, and mine as an oyster-girl in Whitstable, that all my
old qualms quite left me. Persuaded at last that she liked
me, I visited her again - and then again, and again. I went
nowhere else that month but to the Palace; saw no one else
- not Freddy, not my cousins, not even Alice, hardly - but
her. Mother had begun to frown about it; but when I went
home and said that I had gone back stage at Miss Butler's
invitation, and been treated by her like a friend, she was
impressed. I worked harder than ever at my kitchen duties; I
filleted fish, washed potatoes, chopped parsley, thrust crabs
and lobsters into pans of steaming water - and all so briskly
I barely had breath for a song to cover their shrieks with.
Alice would say rather sullenly that my mania for a certain
person at the Palace made me dull; but I didn't speak to
Alice much these days. Now every working day ended, for
me, with a lightning change, and a hasty supper, and a run
to the station for the Canterbury train; and every trip to
Canterbury ended in Kitty Butler's dressing-room. I spent
more time in her company than I did watching her perform
upon the stage, and saw her more often without her makeup, and her suit, and her footlight manner, than with them.
For the friendlier we grew the freer she became, and the
more confiding.
'You must call me "Kitty",' she said early on, 'and I shall
call you - what? Not "Nancy", for that is what everyone
calls you. What do they call you at home? "Nance", is it?
Or "Nan"? '"Nance",' I said.
'Then I shall call you "Nan" - if I might?' If she might! I
nodded and smiled like an idiot: for the thrill of being
addressed by her I would gladly have lost all of my old
name, and taken a new one, or gone nameless entirely.
So presently it was 'Well, Nan . . . !' this, and 'Lord, Nan . . .
!' that; and, increasingly, it was 'Be a love, Nan, and fetch
me my stockings ..." She was still too shy to change her
clothes before me, but one night when I arrived I found that
she had had a little folding screen set up, and ever
afterwards she used to step behind it while we talked, and
hand me articles of her suit as she undressed, and have me
pass her the pieces of her ladies' costume from the hook that
she had hung them on before the show. I adored being able
to serve her like this. I would brush and fold her suit with
trembling fingers, and secretly press its various materials the starched linen of the shirt, the silk of the waistcoat and
the stockings, the wool of the jacket and trousers - to my
cheek. Each item came to me warm from her body, and
with its own particular scent; each seemed charged with a
strange kind of power, and tingled or glowed (or so I
imagined) beneath my hand.
Her petticoats and dresses were cold and did not tingle; but
I still blushed to handle them, for I couldn't help but think
of all the soft and secret places they would soon enclose, or
brush against, or warm and make moist, once she had
donned them. Every time she stepped from behind the
screen, clad as a girl, small and slim and shapely, a false
plait smothering the lovely, ragged edges of her crop, I had
the same sensation: a pang of disappointment and regret
that turned instantly to pleasure and to aching love; a desire
to touch, to embrace and caress, so strong I had to turn
aside or fold my arms for fear that they would fly about her
and press her close.
At length I grew so handy with her costumes she suggested
that I visit her before she went on stage, to help her ready
herself for her act, like a proper dresser. She said it with a
kind of studied carelessness, as if half-fearful that I might
not wish to; she could not have known, I suppose, how
dreary the hours were to me, that I must pass away from her
. . . Soon I never stepped into the auditorium at all, but
headed, every night, back stage, a half-hour before she was
due before the footlights, to help her re-don the shirt and
waistcoat and trousers that I had taken from her the night
before; to hold the powder-box while she dusted out her
freckles, to dampen the brushes with which she smoothed
out the curl in her hair, to fasten the rose to her lapel.
The first time I did all this I walked with her to the stage
afterwards, and stood in the wing while she went through
her set, gazing in wonder at the limes-men who strode,
nimble as acrobats, across the battens in the fly-gallery;
seeing nothing of the hall, nothing of the stage except a
stretch of dusty board with a boy at the other end of it, his
arm upon the handle that turned the rope that brought the
curtain down. She had been nervous, as all performers are,
and her nervousness had infected me; but when she stepped
into the wing at the end of her final number, pursued by
stamping, by shouts and 'Hurrahs!', she was flushed and gay
and triumphant. To tell the truth, I did not quite like her
then. She seized my arm, but didn't see me. She was like a
woman in the grip of a drug, or in the first flush of an
embrace, and I felt a fool to be at her side, so still and
sober, and jealous of the crowd that was her lover.
After that, I passed the twenty minutes or so that she was
gone each night alone, in her room, listening to the beat of
her songs through the ceiling and walls, happier to hear the
cheers of the audience from a distance. I would make tea
for her - she liked it brewed in the pan with condensed
milk, dark as a walnut and thick as syrup; I knew by the
changing tempos of her set just when to set the kettle on the
hearth, so the cup would be ready for her return. While the
tea simmered I would wipe her little table, and empty her
ashtrays, and dust down the glass; I would tidy the cracked
and faded old cigar-box in which she kept her sticks of
grease-paint. They were acts of love, these humble little
ministrations, and of pleasure - even, perhaps, of a kind of
self-pleasure, for it made me feel strange and hot and
almost shameful to perform them. While she was being
ravished by the admiration of the crowd, I would pace her
dressing-room and gaze at her possessions, or caress them,
or almost caress them - holding my fingers an inch away
from them, as if they had an aura, as well as a surface, that
might be stroked. I loved everything that she left behind her
- her petticoats and her perfumes, and the pearls that she
clipped to the lobes of her ears; but also the hairs on her
combs, the eyelashes that clung to her sticks of spit-black,
even the dent of her fingers and lips on her cigarette-ends.
The world, to me, seemed utterly transformed since Kitty
Butler had stepped into it. It had been ordinary before she
came; now it was full of queer electric spaces, that she left
ringing with music or glowing with light.
By the time she returned to her dressing-room I would have
everything tidy and still. Her tea, as I have said, would be
ready; sometimes, too, I would have a cigarette lit for her.
She would have lost her fierce, distracted look, and be
simply merry and kind. 'What a crowd!' she'd say. 'They
wouldn't let me leave!' Or, 'A slow one tonight, Nan; I
believe I was half-way through "Good Cheer, Boys, Good
Cheer" before they realised I was a girl!'
She would unclip her necktie and hang up her jacket and
hat, then she would sip her tea and smoke her fag and –
since performing made her garrulous - she would talk to
me, and I would listen, hard. And so I learned a little of her
She had been born, she said, in Rochester, to a family of
entertainers. Her mother (she did not mention a father) had
died while she was still quite a baby, and she had been
raised by her grandmother; she had no brothers, no sisters,
and no cousins that she could recall. She had taken her first
bows before the footlights at the age of twelve, as 'Kate
Straw, the Little Singing Wonder', and had known a bit of
success in penny-gaffs and public-houses, and the smaller
kinds of halls and theatres. But it was a miserable sort of
life, she said - 'and soon I wasn't even little any more. Every
time a place came up there was a crush of girls queuing for
it at the stage door, all just the same as me, or prettier, or
perter - or hungrier, and so more willing to kiss the
chairman for the promise of a season's work, or a week's, or
even a night's.' Her grandmother had died; she had joined a
dancing troupe and toured the seaside towns of Kent and
the South Coast, doing end-of-pier shows three times a
night. She frowned when she spoke about these times, and
her voice was bitter, or weary; she would place a hand
beneath her chin, and rest her head upon it, and close her
'Oh, it was hard,' she'd say, 'so hard . . . And you never
made a friend, because you were never in one place long
enough. And all the stars thought themselves too grand to
talk to you, or were afraid you would copy their routines.
And the crowds were cruel, and made you cry . ..' The
thought of Kitty weeping brought the tears to my own eyes;
and seeing me so affected, she'd give a smile, and a wink,
and a stretch, and say in her best swell accent: 'But those
days are all behind me now, don't you know, and I am on
the path to fame and fortune. Since I changed my name and
became a masher the whole world loves me; and Tricky
Reeves loves me most of all, and pays me like a prince, to
prove it!' And then we would smile together, because we
both knew that if she really were a masher Tricky's wages
would barely keep her in champagne; but my smile would
be a little troubled for I knew, too, that her contract was due
to expire at the end of August, and then she would have to
move to another theatre - to Margate, perhaps, she said, or
Broadstairs, if they would have her. I couldn't bear to think
what I would do when she was gone.
What my family made of my trips backstage, my
marvellous new status as Miss Butler's pal and unofficial
dresser, I am not sure. They were, as I have said, impressed;
but they were also troubled. It was reassuring for them that
it was a real friendship, and not just a schoolgirl mash, that
had me travelling so often to the Palace, and spending all
my savings on the train fare; and yet, I thought I heard them
ask themselves, what manner of friendship could there be
between a handsome, clever music-hall artiste, and the girl
in the crowd that admired her? When I said that Kitty had
no young man (for I had found this out, early on, amongst
the pieces of her history) Davy said that I should bring her
home, and introduce her to my handsome brother - though
he only said it when Rhoda was near, to tease her. When I
spoke of brewing her pans of tea and tidying her table,
Mother narrowed her eyes: 'She's doing all right out of you
by the sound of it. It's a little more help with the tea and the
tables we could do with, from you, home here . . .'
It was true, I suppose, that I rather neglected my duties in
the house for the sake of my trips to the Palace. They fell to
my sister, though she rarely complained about it. I believe
my parents thought her generous, allowing me my freedom
at her own expense. The truth was, I think, that she was
squeamish of mentioning Kitty now - and by that alone I
knew that it was she, more than any of them, who was
uneasy. I had said nothing more to her about my passion. I
had said nothing of my new, strange, hot desire to anyone.
But she saw me, of course, as I lay in my bed; and, as
anyone will tell you who has been secretly in love, it is in
bed that you do your dreaming - in bed, in the darkness,
where you cannot see your own cheeks pink, that you ease
back the mantle of restraint that keeps your passion dimmed
throughout the day, and let it glow a little.
How Kitty would have blushed, to know the part she played
in my fierce dreamings - to know how shamelessly I took
my memories of her, and turned them to my own improper
advantage! Each night at the Palace she kissed me farewell;
in my dreams her lips stayed at my cheek - were hot, were
tender -moved to my brow, my ear, my throat, my mouth ..
I was used to standing close to her, to fasten her collarstuds or brush her lapels; now, in my reveries, I did what I
longed to do then - I leaned to place my lips upon the edges
of her hair; I slid my hands beneath her coat, to where her
breasts pressed warm against her stiff gent's shirt and rose
to meet my strokings .. .
And all this - which left me thick with bafflement and
pleasure - with my sister at my side! All this with Alice's
breath upon my cheek, or her hot limbs pressed against
mine; or with her eyes shining cold and dull, with starlight
and suspicion.
But she said nothing; she asked me nothing; and to the rest
of the family, at least, my continuing friendship with Kitty
became in time a source not of wonder, but of pride. 'Have
you been to the Palace at Canterbury?' I would hear Father
say to customers as he took their plates. 'Our youngest girl
is very thick with Kitty Butler, the star of the show ..." By
the end of August, when the oyster season had started again
and we were back in the shop full-time, they began to press
me to bring Kitty home with me, that they might meet her
for themselves.
'You are always saying as how she is your pal,' said Father
one morning at breakfast. 'And besides - what a crime it
would be for her to come so near to Whitstable, and never
taste a proper oyster-tea. You bring her over here, before
she goes.' The idea of asking Kitty to sup with my family
seemed a horrible one; and because my father spoke so
carelessly about the fact that she would soon have left for a
new hall, I made him a stinging reply. A little later Mother
took me aside. Was my father's house not good enough for
Miss Butler, she said, that I couldn't invite her here? Was I
ashamed of my parents, and my parents' trade? Her words
made me gloomy; I was quiet and sad with Kitty that night,
and when after the show she asked me why, I bit my lip.
'My parents want me to ask you over,' I said, 'for tea
tomorrow. You don't have to come, and I can say you're
busy or sick. But I promised them I'd ask you; and now,' I
finished miserably, 'I have.'
She took my hand. 'But Nan,' she said in wonder, 'I should
love to come! You know how dull it is for me in
Canterbury, with no one but Mrs Pugh, and Sandy, to talk
to!' Mrs Pugh was the landlady of Kitty's rooming-house;
Sandy was the boy who shared her landing: he played in the
band at the Palace, but drank, she said, and was sometimes
silly and a bore. 'Oh, how nice it would be,' she continued,
'to sit in a proper parlour again, with a proper family - not
just a room with a bed in it, and a dirty rug, and a bit of
newspaper on the table for a cloth! And how nice to see
where you live and work; and to catch your train; and to
meet the people that love you, and have you with them all
day . . .'
It made me fidget and swallow to hear her talk like this, all
unself-consciously, of how she liked me; tonight, however,
I had no time even to blush: for as she spoke there came a
knock at her door - a sharp, cheerful, authoritative knock
that made her blink and stiffen, and look up in surprise.
I, too, gave a start. In all the evenings I had spent with her,
she had had no visitors but the call-boy - who came to tell
her when she was wanted in the wing - and Tony, who
sometimes put his head around the door to wish us both
good-night. She had no beau, as I have said; she had no
other 'fans' - no friends at all, it seemed, but me; and I had
always been rather glad of it. Now I watched her step to the
door, and bit my lip. I should like to say I felt a thrill of
foreboding, but I did not. I only felt piqued, that our time
alone together - which I thought little enough! - should be
made shorter.
The visitor was a gentleman: a stranger, evidently, to Kitty,
for she greeted him politely, but quite cautiously. He had a
silk I hat on his head which - seeing her, and then me
lurking in the little room behind her - he removed, and held
to his bosom. 'Miss Butler, I believe,' he said; and when she
nodded, he gave a bow: 'Walter Bliss, ma'am. Your
servant.' His voice was deep and pleasant and clear, like
Tricky's. As he spoke he produced a card from his pocket
and held it out. In the second or so it took Kitty to gaze at it
and give a little 'Oh!' of surprise, I studied him. He was
very tall, even without his hat, and was dressed rather
fashionably in chequered trousers and a fancy waistcoat.
Across his stomach there was a golden watch-chain as thick
as the tail of a rat; and more gold, I noticed, flashed from
his fingers. His head was large, his hair a dull ginger; gingerish, too — and somehow at once both impressive and
rather comical - were the whiskers that swept from his top
lip to his ears, and his eyebrows, and the hair in his nose.
His skin was as clear and shiny as a boy's. His eyes were
When Kitty returned his card to him, he asked if he might
speak with her a moment, and at once she stood aside to let
him pass. With him in it, the little room seemed very full
and hot. I rose, reluctantly, and put on my gloves and my
hat, and said that I should go; and then Kitty introduced me
- 'My friend, Miss Astley,' she called me, which made me
feel a little gayer - and Mr Bliss shook my hand.
Tell your Mother,' said Kitty as she showed me to the door,
'that I shall come tomorrow, any time she likes.'
'Come at four,' I said.
'Four it is, then!' She briefly took my hand again, and kissed
my cheek.
Over her shoulder I saw the flashy gentleman fingering his
whiskers, but with his eyes turned, politely, away from us.
I can hardly say what a curious mix of feelings mine were,
the Sunday afternoon when Kitty came to call on us in
Whitstable. She was more to me than all the world; that she
should be visiting me in my own home, and supping with
my family, seemed both a delight too lovely to be borne
and a great and and walked like a girl, with her plait
fastened to the back of her head and a parasol over her arm,
I felt a little pang of disappointment. This swiftly turned,
however - as always - to desire, and then to pride, for she
looked terribly smart and handsome on that dusty
Whitstable platform. She kissed my cheek when I went up
to her, and took my arm, and let me lead her from the
station to our house, across the sea-front. She said, 'Well!
And this is where you were born, and grew up?'
'Oh yes! Look there: that building, beside the church, is our
old school. Over there - see that house with the bicycle by
the gate? - that's where my cousins live. Here, look, on this
step, I once fell down and cut my chin, and my sister held
her handkerchief to it, the whole way home ..." So I talked
and pointed, and Kitty nodded, biting her lip. 'How lucky
you are!' she said at last; and as she said it, she seemed to
I had feared that the afternoon would be dismal and hard, in
fact, it was merry. Kitty shook hands with everyone, and
had a word for them all, such as, 'You must be Davy, who
works in the smack', and 'You must be Alice, who Nancy
talks about so often, and is so proud of. Now I can see why'
- which made Alice blush, and look to the floor in
With my father she was kind. 'Well, well, Miss Butler,' he
said when he took her hand, nodding at her skirts, 'this is
rather a change, ain't it, from your usual gear?' She smiled
and said it was; and when he added, with a wink, 'And
something of an improvement, too - if you don't mind a
gentleman saying so', she laughed and said that, since
gentlemen were usually of that opinion, she was quite used
to it, and did not mind a bit.
All in all she made herself so pleasant, and answered their
questions about herself, and the music hall, so sweetly and
cleverly, that no one - not even Alice, or spiteful Rhoda could dislike her; and I - watching her gaze from the
windows at Whitstable Bay, or incline her head to catch a
story of my father's, or compliment my mother on some
ornament or picture (she admired the shawl, above the
fireplace!) -I fell in love with her, all over again. And my
love was all the warmer, of course, since I had that special,
secret knowledge about Tricky, and the contract, and the
extra four months.
She had come for tea, and presently we all sat down to it Kitty marvelling, as we did so, at the table. It was set for a
real oyster-supper, with a linen cloth, and a little spirit-lamp
with a plate of butter on it, waiting to be melted. On either
side of this there were platters of bread, and quartered
lemons, and vinegar and pepper castors - two or three of
each. Beside every plate there was a fork, a spoon, a
napkin, and the all-important oyster-knife; and in the
middle of the table there was the oyster-barrel itself, a white
cloth bound about its top-most hoop, and its lid loosened by
a finger's width - 'Just enough,' as my father would say, 'to
let the oysters stretch a little'; but not enough to let them
open their shells and sicken. We were rather cramped
around the table, for there were eight of us in all, and we
had had to bring up extra chairs from the restaurant below.
Kitty and I sat close, our elbows almost touching, our shoes
side by side beneath the table. When Mother cried, 'Do
move along a bit, Nancy, and give Miss Butler some
room!', Kitty said that she was quite all right, Mrs Astley,
really; and I shifted a quarter of an inch to my right, but
kept my foot pressed against hers, and felt her leg, all hot,
against my own.
Father handed out the oysters, and Mother offered beer or
lempnade. Kitty picked up a shell with one hand and her
oyster-knife with the other, and brought them together
rather ineffectually. Father saw, and gave a shout.
'Ho, there, Miss Butler, where are our manners! Davy, you
take that knife and show the lady how - else she might just
job the blade into her hand, and give herself a nasty cut.'
'I can do it,' I said quickly; and I took the oyster from her,
and the knife, before my brother could get his fingers on
'You do it like this,' I said to her. 'You must hold the oyster
in your palm so that the flat shell is uppermost - like this.' I
held the shell to show her, and she gazed at it rather
gravely. Then you must take your blade and put it - not
between the halves, but in the hinge, here. And then you
must grasp it, and prise.' I gave the knife a gentle twist, and
the shell eased open. 'You must hold it steady,’ I went on,
'because the shell is full of liquor, and you mustn't spill a
drop of it, for that's the tastiest part.' The little fish sat in my
palm in its bath of oyster-juice, naked and slippery. 'This
here,' I said, pointing with my knife, 'is called the beard;
you must trim that away.' I gave the blade a flick, and the
beard was severed. 'Then you must just cut your oyster free
. . . And now you may eat it.' I slipped the shell carefully
into her hand, and felt her fingers warm and soft against my
own as she cupped them to receive it. Our heads were very
near. She raised the oyster to her lips and held it for a
second before her mouth, her eyes on mine, unblinking.
I had not been aware of it, but I had spoken softly, and the
others had quietened to listen. Now the table was hushed
and still. When I took my eyes from Kitty's I saw a ring of
faces turned my way, and blushed.
At last, someone spoke. It was Father, and his voice was
very loud. 'No bolting him down whole now, Miss Butler,'
he said, 'like the gormays do. We won't have that at this
table. You go on and give him a real good chew.' He said it
kindly, and Kitty laughed. She peered into the shell in her
hand. 'And is it really alive?’ she said.
'Alive alive-oh,' said Davy. 'If you listen very hard, you will
hear him shrieking as he goes down.'
There were protests at that from Rhoda and Alice. 'You will
make the poor girl sick,' said Mother. 'Don't you mind him,
Miss Butler. You just eat your fish, and enjoy it.'
Kitty did so. With no more glances at me she threw the
contents of her shell into her mouth, chewed them hard and
fast, and swallowed them. Then she wiped her lips with her
napkin, and smiled at Father.
'Now,' he said, confidentially, 'tell the truth: have you ever
tasted an oyster such as that, before, or have you not?'
Kitty said that she had not, and Davy gave a cheer; and for
a while there was no sound at all but the delicate,
diminutive sounds of good oyster-supper: the creak of
hinges, the slap of discarded beards, the trickle of liquor
and butter and beer.
I opened no more shells for Kitty, for she managed them
herself. 'Look at this one!' she said, when she had handled
half-a-dozen or so. 'What a brute he is!' Then she looked
more closely at it. Is it a he? I suppose they all must be,
since they all have beards?'
Father shook his head, chewing. 'Not at all, Miss Butler, not
at all. Don't let the beards mislead you. For the oyster, you
see, is what you might call a real queer fish - now a he, now
a she, as quite takes its fancy. A regular morphodite, in
'Is that so?'
Tony tapped his plate. 'You're a bit of an oyster, then,
yourself, Kitty,' he said with a smirk.
She looked for a moment rather uncertain, but then she
smiled. 'Why, I suppose I am,' she said. 'Just fancy! I've
never been likened to a fish before.'
'Well, don't take it the wrong way, Miss Butler,' said
Mother, 'for spoken in this house, it is something of a
Tony laughed, and Father said, 'Oh, it was, it was!'
Kitty still smiled. Then she half-rose to reach a pepper
castor; and when she sat again she drew her feet beneath
her chair, and I felt my thigh grow cool.
When the oyster-barrel was quite empty, and the lemonade
and the Bass had all been drunk, and Kitty declared that she
had never had a finer supper in all her life, we moved our
chairs away from the table, and the men lit cigarettes, and
Alice and Rhoda set out cups, for tea. There was more talk,
and more questions for Kitty to answer. Had she ever met
Nelly Power? Did she know Bessie Bellwood, or Jenny
Hill, or Jolly John Nash? Then, on another tack: was it true
that she had no young chap? She said she had no time for it.
And had she family, in Kent, and when did she see them?
She had none at all, she said, since her grandmother died.
Mother tut-tutted over that, and said it was a shame; Davy
said she could help herself to some of our relations, if she
liked, for we had more than we knew what to do with.
'Oh yes?' said Kitty.
'Yes,' said Davy. 'You must have heard the song:
'There's her uncle, and her brother, and her sister, and her
And her auntie, and another, who is cousin to her mother..."
No sooner had he finished the verse, indeed, than there was
the sound of our street-door opening, and a shout up the
stairs; and three of our cousins themselves appeared,
followed by Uncle Joe and Aunt Rosina - all got up in their
Sunday best, and all just popped in, they said, for a 'peek' at
Miss Butler, if Miss Butler had no objection.
More chairs were brought up, and more cups; a fresh round
of introductions was made, and the little room grew stuffy
with heat and smoke and laughter. Somebody said what a
shame it was we had no piano for Miss Butler to give us a
song; then George - my eldest cousin - said, 'Would a
harmonica serve the purpose?' and produced one from his
jacket pocket. Kitty blushed, and said she couldn't; and
everyone cried, 'Oh please, Miss Butler, do!'
'What do you think, Nan,' she said to me, 'should I shame
'You know you won't,' I said, pleased that she had turned to
me at the last, and used my special name before them all.
'Very well, then,' she said. A little space was cleared for
her, and Rlioda ran down to her house, to fetch her sisters
to come and watch.
She sang The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery', and The
Coffee Shop Girl' - then The Boy' again for Rhoda's sisters,
who had just arrived. Then she whispered to George and to
me, and I fetched her a hat of Father's and a walking-cane,
and she sang us a couple of masher songs, and ended with
the ballad with which she finished her set at the Palace,
about the sweetheart and the rose.
We cheered her then, and she had her hand shaken, and her
back slapped, ten times over. She looked very flushed and
hot at the end of it all, and rather tired. Davy said, 'How
about a song from you now, Nance?' I gave him a look.
'No,' I said. I wouldn't sing for them with Kitty there, for
Kitty looked at me curiously. 'Do you sing, then?' she said.
'Nancy's got the prettiest voice, Miss Butler,' said one of the
cousins, 'you ever heard.'
'Yes, go on, Nance, be a sport!' said another.
'No, no, no!' I cried again - so firmly that Mother frowned,
and the others laughed.
Uncle Joe said, 'Well, that's a shame, that is. You should
hear her in the kitchen, Miss Butler. She's a regular songbird, she is, then: a regular lark. Makes your heart turn over,
to hear her.' There were murmurs of agreement throughout
the room, and I saw Kitty look blinkingly my way. Then
George whispered rather loudly that I must be saving my
voice for serenading Freddy, and there was a fresh round of
laughter that set me gazing and blushing into my lap. Kitty
looked bemused.
She asked then, 'Who is Freddy?'
'Freddy is Nancy's young feller,' said Davy. 'A very
handsome chap. She must've boasted about him to you?'
'No,' said Kitty, 'she has not.' She said it lightly, but I
glanced up and saw that her eyes were strange, and almost
sad. It was true that I had never mentioned Fred to her. The
fact was, I barely thought of him as my beau these days, for
since her arrival in Canterbury I had had no evenings spare
to spend with him. He had recently sent me a letter to say,
did I still care? — and I had put the letter in a drawer, and
forgotten to reply.
There was more chaff about Freddy, then; I was glad when
one of Rhoda's sisters caused a fuss, by snatching the
harmonica from George and giving us a tune so horrible it
made the boys all shout at her, and pull her hair, to make
her stop.
While they quarrelled and swore, Kitty leaned towards me
and said softly, 'Will you take me to your room, Nan, or
somewhere quiet, for a bit - just you and me?' She looked
so grave suddenly I feared that she might faint. I got up,
and made a path for her across the crowded room, and told
my mother I was taking her upstairs; and Mother - who was
gazing trou-bledly at Rhoda's sister, not knowing whether
to laugh at her or to scold - gave us a nod, distractedly, and
we escaped.
The bedroom was cooler than the parlour, and dimmer, and
— although we could still hear shouts, and stamping, and
blasts from the harmonica - wonderfully calm compared to
the room we had just left. The window was raised, and
Kitty crossed to it at once and placed her arms upon the sill.
Closing her eyes against the breeze that blew in from the
bay, she took a few deep, grateful breaths.
'Are you poorly?' I said. She turned to me and shook her
head, and smiled; but again, her smile seemed sad.
'Just tired.'
My jug and bowl were on the side. I poured a little water
out and carried it to her, for her to wash her hands and
splash her face. The water spotted her dress, and dampened
the fringe of her hair into dark little points.
She had a purse swinging at her waist, and now she dipped
her fingers into it and drew out a cigarette and a box of
matches. She said, 'I am sure your mother would
disapprove, but I'm just about busting for a smoke.' She lit
the cigarette, and drew upon it heavily.
We gazed at one another not speaking. Then, because we
were weary and there was no where else for us to sit, we sat
upon the bed, side by side, and quite close. It was terribly
strange to be with her in the very room - on the very spot! where I had spent so many hours dreaming of her, so
immodestly. I said, 'It ain't half strange -' But as I said it she
also spoke; and we laughed. 'You first,' she said, and drew
again upon her fag.
'I was just going to say, how funny it is to have you here,
like this.'
'And I,' she said, 'was going to say how funny it is to be
here! And this is really your room, yours and Alice's? And
your bed?' She looked about her, as if in wonder - as if I
might have taken her to a stranger's chamber, and be trying
to pass it off as my own - and I nodded.
She was silent again, then, and so was I; and yet I sensed
that she had more to say, and was only working up to
saying it. I thought, with a little thrill, that I knew what it
was; but when she spoke again it wasn't about the contract,
but about my family -about how kind they were, and how
much they loved me, and how lucky I was to have them. I
remembered that she was an orphan, of sorts, and bit back
my protests, and let her talk; but my silence seemed only to
dampen her spirits the further.
At last, when her cigarette was finished and thrown into the
grate, she took a breath and said what I had been waiting
for. 'Nan, I have something to tell you - a piece of good
news, and you must promise to be happy for me.'
I couldn't help myself. I had been longing to smile about it
all afternoon, and now I laughed and said, 'Oh Kitty, I know
your news already!' She seemed to frown then, so I went on
quickly, 'You mustn't be cross with Tony, but he told me just today.'
'Told you what?'
'That Tricky wants you to stay on, at the Palace; that you
will be here till Christpas at least!'
She looked at me rather strangely, then lowered her gaze
and gave an awkward little laugh. 'That's not my news,' she
said. 'And nobody knows it but me. Tricky does want me to
stay on - but I've turned him down.'
'Turned him down?' I stared at her. Still she would not catch
my eye, but got to her feet, and crossed her arms over her
'Do you remember the gentleman who called on me last
night,' she said,' - Mr Bliss?' I nodded. She hadn't
mentioned him today; and in all my fussing over her visit, I
had forgotten to ask after him. Now she went on: 'Mr Bliss
is a manager - not a theatre manager, like Tricky, but a
manager for artistes: an agent. He saw my turn and - oh,
Nan!' - she couldn't help but be excited now - 'he saw my
turn and liked it so much, he has offered me a contract, at a
music hall in London!'
'London!' I could only echo her in disbelief. This was
terrible beyond all words. Had she gone to Margate or
Broadstairs, I might have visited her sometimes. If she went
to London I would never see her again; she might just as
well go to Africa, or to the moon.
She went talking on, saying how Mr Bliss had friends at the
London halls, and had promised her a season at them all;
how he had said she was too good for the provincial stage;
that she would find fame in the city, where all the big
names worked, and all the money was ... I hardly listened,
but grew more and more miserable. At length I placed a
hand before my eyes, and bowed my head, and she grew
'You're not happy for me, after all,' she said quietly.
'I am,' I said - my voice was thick - 'but I am more unhappy,
for myself.'
There was a silence then, broken only by the sound of
laughter and scraping chairs from the parlour below, and
the shriek of gulls outside the open window. The room
seemed to have darkened since we entered it, and I felt
colder, suddenly, than I had all summer.
I heard her take a step. In a second she was sitting beside
me again, and had taken my hand from my brow. 'Listen,'
she said. 'I have something to ask you.' I looked at her; her
face was pale, except for its cloud of freckles, and her eyes
seemed large. 'Do you think that I look handsome today?'
she said. 'Do you think I have been kind, and pleasant, and
good? Do you think your parents like me?' Her words
seemed wild. I did not speak, but only nodded wonderingly.
'I came,' she said, 'to make them. I wore my smartest frock,
so they would think me grander than I am. I thought, they
might be the meanest and most miserable family in all of
Kent; yet I will work so hard at being nice, they'll trust me
like a daughter.
'But oh, Nan, they're not miserable or mean, and I didn't
have to play at being nice at all! They are the kindest family
I ever met; and you are all the world to them. I cannot
ask'you to give them up . . .'
My heart seemed to stop - and then to pound, like a piston.
'What do you mean?' I said. She looked away.
'I meant to ask you to come with me. To London.'
I blinked. 'To go with you? But how?'
'As my dresser,' she said, 'if you'd care to. As my anything, I don't know. I have spoken to Mr Bliss: he says
there will not be much money for you at first - but enough,
if you share my diggings.'
'Why?' I said then. She raised her eyes to mine.
'Because I - like you. Because you are good for me, and
bring me luck. And because London will be strange; and
Mr Bliss may not be all that he seems; and I shall have no
one ..."
'And you truly thought,' I said slowly, 'that I would say no?'
'This afternoon - yes. Last night, and this morning, I
believed - Oh, it was so different in the dressing-room,
when it was just the two of us! I didn't know then how it
was for you here. I didn't know then that you had a - a
Her words made me bold. I drew my hand away from hers
and got to my feet. I walked to the head of the bed, where
there was a little cabinet, with a drawer in it. I opened it,
and took something from it, and showed it to her. 'Do you
know this?' I said, and she smiled.
'It's the flower I gave you.' She took it from me, and held it.
It was dry and limp, and its petals were brown at the edges
and coming loose; and it was rather flat, because I had slept
many nights with it beneath my pillow.
'When you threw this to me,' I said to her, 'my life changed.
I think I must have been - asleep - till that moment: asleep,
or dead. Since I met you, I've been awake - alive! Do you
think I could give that up, now, so easily?'
My words startled her - as well they might, for I had never
spoken like this before, to her or to anyone. She looked
away from me, about the room, and ran her tongue over her
lips. 'And all of them, downstairs?' she said, nodding
towards the door. 'Your mother and father, your brother,
Alice, Freddy?' As she spoke there came a shout, and the
sound of voices raised in friendly argument.
They mean nothing to me, I wanted to say, compared with
you . . . But I only shrugged, and smiled.
She smiled then, too. 'And so you really will come? We
must leave on Sunday, you know - a week from today. It
doesn't give you long.'
I said it would be long enough; and she placed the faded
rose upon the bed, and seized my hands and squeezed them
'Oh Nan! My dear Nan! We'll have such times together, I
promise you!' As she spoke, she flung my hands aside and
gripped me in a fierce embrace, and laughed with pleasure,
so that I felt her body shudder in my arms.
Then, all too soon, she stepped away, and I had only empty
air to clutch at.
There was more noise from below, then the sound of a door
opening, followed by the thud of feet upon the staircase,
and a cry: 'Nancy!' It was Alice. She paused outside the
bedroom door, but was too polite - or fearful - to turn the
handle. 'Everyone is leaving,' she called. 'Mother says will
Miss Butler just step down for a moment, please, for them
to say good-bye.'
I looked at Kitty. 'You go on,' I said, 'without me, and I
shall come down in a minute. And don't,' I added in a lower
voice, 'say anything to them about - our plans. I'll talk to
them about it, later on.'
She nodded, and gave my hand another squeeze; then she
opened the door and joined Alice on the landing, and I
heard them step below, together.
I stood in the gathering shadows and put my trembling
fingers before my face. I had taken to scrubbing my hands
very carefully, since meeting Kitty Butler; and if they were
ever a little stained at the creases now, it was as much with
paint and hot-black and blanc-de-perle, as with vinegar.
Even so, there was the scent of oysters on them still, and a
slender thread - it might have been the bristle from the back
of a lobster, the whisker from a shrimp - beneath one of my
nails. How would it be, I thought, to surrender my family,
my home, all my oyster-girl's ways?
And how would it be to live at Kitty's side, brim-full of a
love so quick, and yet so secret, it made me shake?
Chapter 3
I wish, for sensation's sake, I could say that my parents
heard one word of Kitty's proposal and forbade me,
absolutely, to refer to it again; that when I pressed the
matter, they cursed and shouted; that my mother wept, my
father struck me; that I was obliged, in the end, to climb
from a window at dawn, with my clothes in a rag at the end
of a stick, and a streaming face, and a note pinned to my
pillow saying Do not try to follow me ... But if I said these
things, I would be lying. My parents were reasonable, not
passionate, people. They loved me, and they feared for me;
the idea of allowing their youngest daughter to travel in the
care of an actress and a music-hall manager to the
grimmest, wickedest city in England was, they knew, a mad
one, that no sane parent should entertain for longer than a
second. But because they loved me so, they could not bear
to have me grieve. Anyone with half an eye could see that
my heart lay all with Kitty Butler now; anyone might guess
that, having once been offered the chance of a future at her
side, and kept from it, I could never return to my father's
kitchen and be happy there, as I had been before.
So when, an hour or so after Kitty's departure, I nervously
put her plan before my parents, and argued and pleaded for
their blessing, they listened to me wonderingly, but
carefully; and when, the next day, Father stopped me on my
way down to the kitchen to draw me into the parlour where
it was quiet and still, his face was sad and serious, but kind.
He asked me, first, whether I had not changed my mind? I
shook my head, and he sighed. He said, if I was quite
decided, then Mother and he could not keep me; that I was
a grown-up woman, almost, and should be allowed to know
my own mind; that they had thought to see me marry a
Whitstable boy, and settle close at hand, and so have a
share in my little happinesses and troubles - but that now,
he supposed, I would go and hitch up with some London
fellow, who wouldn't understand their ways at all.
But children, he concluded, weren't made to please their
parents; and no father should expect to have his daughter at
his side for ever ... 'In short, Nance, even was you going to
the very devil himself, your mother and I would rather see
you fly from us in joy, than stay with us in sorrow - and
grow, maybe, to hate us, for keeping you from your fate.' I
had never known him so grave before, nor so eloquent. I
had never seen him weep either; but now as he spoke his
eyes glistened, and he blinked, twice or thrice, to hold the
tears back, and his voice grew thin. I placed my head
against his shoulder and let my own tears rise and spill. He
put an arm about me, and patted me. 'It breaks our hearts to
lose you, dear,' he went on. 'You know it does. Only
promise us that you won't forget us, quite. That you'll write
to us, and visit us. And that, if things don't turn out as you
might, quite, wish them, you won't be too proud to come
home to those that love you -' Here his voice failed utterly,
and he shuddered; and I could only nod against his neck
and say, 'I will, I will; I promise you, I will.'
But oh! hard-hearted daughter that I was, when he had left
me my tears dried at once, and I felt the return of all my
gladness of the night before. I hugged myself in pleasure,
and danced a jig around the parlour - but delicately, on
tiptoe, so that they wouldn't hear me in the dining-room
below. Then quickly, before I should be missed, I ran to the
post office and sent Kitty a card at the Palace - a picture of
a Whitstable oyster-smack, upon whose sail I inked 'To
London', and on the deck of which I drew two girls with
bags and trunks and outsize, smiling faces. 'I can come!!!' I
wrote upon the back, and added that she must do without
her dresser for a few nights while I made all ready . . . and I
finished it 'Fondly', and signed it, 'Your Nan'.
I had to be glad only in snatches that day, for the scene that
I had passed with Father, after breakfast, had to be
undergone again with Mother - who hugged me to her, and
cried that they must be fools to let me go; and Davy - who
said, quite absurdly, that I was too little to go to London,
and would be run down by a tram in Trafalgar Square the
minute I set foot in it; and Alice - who said nothing at all
when she heard the news, but ran from the kitchen in tears,
and could not be persuaded to take up her duties in the
Parlour until lunch-time. Only my cousins seemed happy
for me - and they were more jealous than happy, calling me
a lucky cat, and swearing that I would make my fortune in
the city, and forget them all; or else that I would be ruined
utterly, and come sneaking back to them in disgrace.
That week passed quickly. I spent my evenings in calling
on friends and family, and bidding them farewell; and in
washing and patching and packing my dresses, and sorting
out which little items to take with me, which to leave
behind. I visited the Palace only once, and that was in the
company of my parents, who came to reassure themselves
that Miss Butler was still sensible and good, and to ask for
further particulars of the shadowy Walter Bliss.
I had Kitty to myself for no more than a minute, while
Father chatted with Tony and Tricky, after the show. I had
feared all week that I had imagined the words that she had
spoken to me on Sunday evening, or misunderstood them
entirely. Every night, almost, I had woken sweating from
dreams in which I presented myself at her door, with my
bags all packed and my hat upon my head, and she looked
at me in wonder, and frowned, or laughed with derision; or
else I arrived too late at the station, and had to chase the
train along the track while Kitty and Mr Bliss gazed at me
from their carriage window, and would not lean outside to
pull me in ... That night at the Palace, however, she led me
to one side, and pressed my hand, and was quite as kind and
excited as she had been before.
'I've had a letter from Mr Bliss,' she said. 'He has found us
rooms in a house in a place called Brixton — a place so
full, he says, of music-hall people and actors that they call it
"Grease-Paint Avenue".'
Grease-Paint Avenue! I saw it instantly and it was
marvellous, a street set out like a make-up box, with
narrow, gilded houses, each one with a different coloured
roof; and ours would be number 3 - with a chimney the
colour of Kitty's carmined lips!
'We are to catch the two o'clock train on Sunday,' she went
on, 'and Mr Bliss himself will meet us at the station, in a
carriage. And I'm due to start the very next day at the Star
Music Hall, in Bermondsey.'
The Star,' I said. That's a lucky name.'
She smiled. 'Let's hope so. Oh, Nan, let's only hope so!'
My last morning at home was — like every last morning in
history, I suppose - a sad one. We breakfasted together, the
five of us, and were bright enough; but there was a horrible
sense of expectation in the house that made anything except
sighing, and drifting aimlessly from job to job, seem quite
impossible. By eleven o'clock I felt as penned and as stifled
as a rat in a box, and made Alice walk with me to the
beach, and hold my shoes and stockings while I stood at the
water's edge one final time. But even this little ritual was a
disappointing one. I put my hand to my brow and gazed at
the glittering bay, at the distant fields and hedges of
Sheppey, at the low, pitch-painted houses of the town, and
the masts and cranes of the harbour and the shipyard. It was
all as familiar to me as the lines on my own face, and - like
one's face when viewed in a glass - both fascinating and
rather dull. No matter how hard I studied it, how fiercely I
thought, I shall not gaze at you again for months and
months, it looked just as it always did; and at last I turned
my eyes away, and walked sadly home.
But it was the same there: nothing that I gazed at or touched
was as special as I thought it should be, or changed by my
going in any way. Nothing, that is, except the faces of my
family; and these were so grave, or so falsely merry and
stiff, that I could hardly bear to look at them at all.
So I was almost glad, at last, when it was time to say
farewell. Father wouldn't let me take the little train to
Canterbury, but said I must be driven, and hired a gig from
the ostler at the Duke of Cumberland Hotel, to take me
there himself. I kissed Mother, and Alice, and let my
brother hand me to my seat at Father's side and place my
luggage at my feet. There was little enough of it: an old
leather suitcase with a strap about it, that held my clothes; a
cap-box for my hats; and a little black tin trunk for
everything else. The trunk was a goodbye gift from Davy.
He had bought it new, and had my initials painted on the lid
in swooning yellow capitals; and inside it he had pasted a
map of Kent, with Whitstable marked on it with an arrow to remind me, he said, where home was, in case I should
We did not talk much, Father and I, on the drive to
Canterbury. At the station we found the train already in and
steaming, and Kitty, her own bags and baskets at her side,
frowning over her watch. It wasn't like my anxious dreams
at all: she gave a great wave when she saw us, and a smile.
'I thought you might have changed your mind,' she cried, 'at
the very last moment.' And I shook my head - in wonder
that she could still think such a thing, after all I'd said!
Father was very kind. He greeted Kitty graciously and,
when he kissed me good-bye he kissed her, too, and wished
her happiness and luck. At the last moment, as I leaned
from the carriage to embrace him, he drew a little chamois
bag from his
pocket and placed it in my hand, and closed my fingers
over it. It held coins - sovereigns - six of them, and more, I
knew, than he could afford to part with; but by the time I
had drawn open the neck of the bag and seen the gleam of
the gold inside it, the train had begun to move, and it was
too late to thrust them back. Instead, I could only shout my
thanks, and kiss my fingers to him, and watch as he raised
his hat and waved it; then place my cheek against the
window-glass when he was gone from sight, and wonder
when I should see him next.
I did not wonder for long, I am afraid to say, for the thrill of
being with Kitty - of hearing her talk again of the rooms we
were to share, and the kind of life we were to have together
in the city, where she was to make her fortune - soon
overcame my grief. My family would have thought me
cruel, I know, to see me laugh while they were sad at home
without me; but oh! I could no more not have smiled, that
afternoon, than not drawn breath, or sweated.
And soon, too, I had London to gaze at and marvel over; for
in an hour we had arrived at Charing Cross. Here Kitty
found a porter to help us with our bags and boxes, and
while he loaded them on to a trolley we looked round
anxiously for Mr Bliss. At last, 'There he is!' cried Kitty,
and her pointing finger showed him striding up the
platform, his whiskers and his coat-tails flying and his face
very red.
'Miss Butler!' he cried when he reached us. 'What a
pleasure! What a pleasure! I feared I would be late; but here
you are exactly as we planned, and even more charming
than before.' He turned to me, then removed his hat - the
silk, again - and made me a low, theatrical bow. '"Off goes
his bonnet to an oyster-wrench!'" he said, rather loudly.
'Miss Astley - late of Whitstable, I believe?' He took my
hand and gripped it briefly. Then he snapped his fingers at
the porter, and offered us each an arm.
He had left a carriage waiting for us on the Strand; the
driver touched his whip to his cap when we approached,
and jumped from his seat to place our luggage on the roof. I
looked about me. It was a Sunday and the Strand was rather
quiet - but I didn't know it; it might have been the racetrack at the Derby to me, so deafening and dizzying was the
clatter of the traffic, so swift the passage of the horses. I felt
safer in the carriage, and only rather queer, to be so close to
a gentleman I did not know, being transported I knew not
where, in a city that was vaster and smokier and more
alarming than I could have thought possible.
There was much, of course, to look at. Mr Bliss had
suggested we take in the sights a little before we headed for
Brixton, so now we rolled into Trafalgar Square - towards
Nelson on his pillar, and the fountains, and the lovely,
bone-coloured front of the National Gallery, and the view
down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament.
'My brother,' I said, as I pressed my face to the window to
gaze at it all, 'said I would be run down by a tram in
Trafalgar Square, if ever I came to London.'
Mr Bliss looked grave. 'Your brother was very sensible to
warn you, Miss Astley - but sadly misinformed. There are
no trams in Trafalgar Square - only buses and hansoms, and
broughams like our own. Trams are for common people;
you should have to go quite as far as Kilburn, I'm afraid, or
Camden Town, in order to be struck by a tram.'
I smiled uncertainly. I did not know, quite, what to make of
Mr Bliss, to whom my future and my happiness had been so
recently, and so unexpectedly, entrusted. While he
addressed himself to Kitty, and directed our attention every
so often to some scene or character in the street beyond, I
studied him. He was a little younger, I saw, than I had taken
him to be at first. That night in Kitty's dressing-room I had
thought him almost middle-aged; now I guessed him to be
one- or two-and-thirty, at the most. He was an impressive,
rather than a handsome, man, but for all his flash and his
speeches, rather homely: I thought he must have a little
wife who loved him, and a baby; and that if he did not which, in fact, was the case - that he should have. I knew
nothing, then, of his history, but learned later that he came
from an old, respectable, theatrical family (his real name
was no more Bliss, of course, than Kitty's was Butler); that
he had left the legitimate stage when he was still a young
man, in order to work the halls as a comic singer; and that
he managed, now, a dozen artistes, but still, on occasion,
took a turn before the footlights - as 'Walter Waters,
Character Baritone' - for sheer love of the profession. I
knew none of this that day in the brougham - but I began to
guess a little of it. For we had reached Pall Mall and turned
into the Haymarket, where the theatres and the music halls
begin; and as we rumbled past them he raised his hand and
tilted the brim of his hat in a kind of salute. I have seen old
Irishwomen, passing before a church, do something similar.
'Her Majesty's,' he said, nodding to a handsome building on
his left: 'my father saw Jenny Lind, the Swedish
Nightingale, make her debut there. The Haymarket:
managed by Mr Beerbohm Tree. The Criterion, or Cri: a
marvel of a theatre, built entirely underground.' Theatre
upon theatre, hall upon hall; and he knew all their histories.
'Ahead of us, the London Pavilion. Down there' - we
squinted along Great Windmill Street - 'the Trocadero
Palace. On our right, the Prince's Theatre.' We passed into
Leicester Square; he took a breath. 'And finally," he said and here he removed his hat entirely, and held it in his lap 'finally, the Empire and the Alhambra, the handsomest
music halls in England, where every artiste is a star, and the
audience is so distinguished that even the gay girls in the
gallery - if you'll pardon my French, Miss Butler, Miss
Astley - wear furs, and pearls, and diamonds.'
He tapped on the ceiling of the brougham, and the driver
drew to a halt at a corner of the little garden in the middle
of the square. Mr Bliss opened the carriage door, and led us
to its centre. Here, with William Shakespeare on his marble
pedestal at our backs, we gazed, all three of us, at the
glorious fagades of the Empire and the Alhambra - the
former with its columns and its glinting cressets, its stained
glass and its soft electric glow; the latter with its dome, its
minarets and fountain. I had not known there were theatres
like this in the world. I had not known that there was such a
place as this, at all - this place that was so squalid and so
splendid, so ugly and so grand, where every imaginable
manner of person stood, or strolled, or lounged, side by
There were ladies and gentlemen, stepping from carriages.
There were girls with trays of flowers and fruit; and coffeesellers, and sherbet-sellers, and soup-men.
There were soldiers in scarlet jackets; there were off-duty
shop-boys in bowlers and boaters and checks. There were
women in shawls, and women in neck-ties; and women in
short skirts, showing their ankles.
There were black men, and Chinamen, and Italians and
Greeks. There were newcomers to the city, gazing about
them as dazed and confounded as I; and there were people
curled on steps and benches, people in clothes that were
crumpled or stained, who looked as if they spent all their
daylit hours here - and all their dark ones, too.
I gazed at Kitty, and my face, I suppose, showed my
amazement, for she laughed, and stroked my cheek, then
seized my hand and held it.
'We are at the heart of London,' said Mr Bliss as she did so,
'the very heart of it. Over there' - he nodded to the
Alhambra -'and all around us' - and here he swept his hand
across the square itself - 'you see what makes that great
heart beat: Variety! Variety, Miss Astley, which age cannot
wither, nor custom stale.' Now he turned to Kitty. 'We
stand,' he said, 'before the greatest Temple of Variety in all
the land. Tomorrow, Miss Butler - tomorrow, or next week,
or next month, perhaps, but soon, soon, I promise you - you
will stand within it, your feet upon its stage. Then it will be
you that sets the heart of London racing! You that makes
the throats of the city shout, "Brava!"'
As he spoke he lifted his hat, and punched the air with it;
one or two passers-by turned their faces towards us, then
looked away quite unconcerned. His words, I thought, were
marvellous ones - and I knew Kitty thought so, too, for she
gripped my hand at the sound of them, and gave a little
shudder of delight; and her cheeks were flushed, as mine
were, and her eyes, like mine, were shining and wide.
We didn't linger very long in Leicester Square after that. Mr
Bliss hailed a boy, and gave him a shilling to fetch us three
foaming glasses from the sherbet-seller, and we sat for a
minute in Shakespeare's shadow, sipping our drinks and
gazing at the people who passed us by, and at the notices
outside the Empire, where Kitty's name, we knew, would
soon be pasted in letters three feet high. But when our
glasses were empty, he slapped his hands together and said
we must be off, for Brixton and Mrs Dendy - our new
landlady - awaited; and he led us back to the brougham and
handed us to our seats. I felt my eyes, that had been so wide
and dazzled, grow small again in the gloom of the coach,
and I began to feel, not thrilled, but rather nervous. I
wondered what kind of lodgings he had found for us, and
what kind of lady Mrs Dendy would be. I hoped that neither
would be very grand.
I need not have worried. Once we had left the West End
and crossed the river, the streets grew greyer and quite dull.
The houses and the people here were smart, but rather
uniform, as if all Grafted by the same unimaginative hand:
there was none of that strange glamour, that lovely, queer
variety of Leicester Square. Soon, too, the streets ceased
even to be smart, and became a little shabby; each corner
that we passed, each public house, each row of shops and
houses, seemed dingier than the one before. Beside me,
Kitty and Mr Bliss had fallen into conversation; their talk
was all of theatres and contracts, costumes and songs. I kept
my face pressed to the window, wondering when we should
ever leave behind these dreary districts and reach
Greasepaint Avenue, our home.
At last, when we had turned into a street of tall, flat-roofed
houses, each with a line of blistered railings before it and a
set of sooty blinds and curtains at its windows, Mr Bliss
broke off his talk to peer outside and say that we were
almost there. I had to look away from his kind and smiling
face, then, to hide my disappointment. I knew that my first,
excited vision of Brixton - that row of golden make-up
sticks, our house with the carmine-coloured roof - was a
foolish one; but this street looked so very grey and mean. It
was no different really, I suppose, from the ordinary roads
that I had left behind in Whitstable; it was only strange but therefore slightly sinister. As we stepped from the
carriage I glanced at Kitty to see if she, too, felt any
stirrings of dismay. But her colour was as high, and her
eyes as damp and shining, as before; she only gazed at the
house to which our chaperon now led us, and gave a little,
tight-lipped smile of satisfaction. I understood, suddenly what I had only half perceived before - that she had spent
her life in plain, anonymous houses like this one, and knew
no better. The thought gave me a little courage - and made
me ache, as usual, with sympathy and love.
Inside, too, the house was rather cheerier. We were met at
the door by Mrs Dendy herself - a white-haired, rather
portly lady, who greeted Mr Bliss like a friend, calling him
'Wal', and offering him her cheek to kiss - and shown into
her parlour. Here she had us sit and remove our hats, and
bade us make ourselves quite cosy; and a girl was called,
then swiftly dispatched to bring some cups and brew some
tea on our behalf.
When the door was closed behind her Mrs Dendy gave us a
smile. 'Welcome, my dears,' she said - she had a voice as
damp and fruity as a piece of Christmas cake — 'Welcome
to Ginevra Road. I do hope that your stay with me will be a
happy, and a lucky one.' Here she nodded to Kitty. 'Mr
Bliss tells me that I'm to have quite a little star twinkling
beneath my eaves, Miss Butler.'
Kitty said modestly that she didn't know about that, and
Mrs Dendy gave a chuckle that turned into a throaty cough.
For a long moment the cough seemed to quite convulse her,
and Kitty and I sat up, exchanging glances of alarm and
dismay. When the fit was passed, however, the lady seemed
just as calm and jolly as before. She drew a handkerchief
from her sleeve, and wiped her lips and eyes with it; then
she reached for a packet of Woodbines from the table at her
elbow, offered us each a cigarette, and took one for herself.
Her fingers, I saw then, were quite yellow with tobacco
After a moment the tea things appeared, and while Kitty
and Mrs Dendy busied themselves with the tray I looked
about me. There was much to look at, for Mrs Dendy's
parlour was rather extraordinary. Its rugs and furniture were
plain enough; its walls, however, were wonderful, for every
one of them was crowded with pictures and photographs so crowded, indeed, that there was barely enough space
between the frames to make out the colour of the wallpaper
'I can see you are quite taken with my little collection,' said
Mrs Dendy as she handed me my tea-cup, and I blushed to
find all eyes suddenly turned my way. She gave me a smile,
and lifted her yellowed fingers to fiddle with the crystal
drop that hung, on a brass thread, from the hole in her ear.
'All old tenants of mine, my dear,' she said; 'and some of
them, as you will see, rather famous.'
I looked at the pictures again. They were all, I now saw,
portraits - signed portraits most of them - of artistes from
the theatres and the halls. There were, as Mrs Dendy had
claimed, several faces that I knew - the Great Vance, for
instance, had his photograph upon the chimney-breast, with
Jolly John Nash, posed as 'Rackity Jack', at his side; and
above the sofa there was a framed song-sheet with a
sprawling, uneven dedication: 'To Dear Ma Dendy. Kind
thoughts, Good wishes. Bessie Bell wood'. But there were
many more that I did not recognise, men and women with
laughing faces, in gay, professional poses, and with
costumes and names so bland, exotic or obscure - Jennie
West, Captain Largo, Shinkaboo Lee -I could guess nothing
about the nature of their turns. I marvelled to think that they
had all stayed here, in Ginevra Road, with comely Mrs
Dendy as their host.
We talked until the tea was drunk, and our landlady had
smoked two or three more cigarettes; then she slapped her
knees and got slowly to her feet.
'I dare say you would like to see your rooms, and give your
faces a bit of a splash,' she said pleasantly. She turned to Mr
Bliss who had risen politely, when she had. 'Now, if you
could just apply your obliging arm to the young ladies'
boxes and things, Wal. . .' Then she led us from the parlour,
and up the stairs. We climbed for three flights, the stairwell
growing dimmer as we ascended, then lightening: the last
set of steps were slim and uncarpeted, and had a little
skylight above them, a quartered pane streaked with soot
and pigeon-droppings, through which the blue of the
September sky showed unexpectedly vivid and clear - as if
the sky itself were a ceiling, and, climbing, we had come
nearer to it.
At the top of these steps there was a door, and behind this a
very small room - not a bed-sitting room as I had expected,
but a tiny parlour with a pair of ancient, sagging armchairs
set before a hearth, and a shallow, old-fashioned dresser.
Beside the dresser was another door, leading to a second
chamber which a sloping roof made even smaller than the
first. Kitty and I stepped to its threshold and stood, side by
side, gazing at what lay beyond: a wash-hand stand; a lyrebacked chair; an alcove with a curtain before it; and a bed a bed with a high, thick mattress and an iron bedstead, and
beneath it a chamberpot - a bed rather narrower than the
one I was used to sharing with my sister at home.
'You won't mind doubling up, of course,' said Mrs Dendy,
who had followed us to the bedroom. 'You'll be quite on top
of each other in here, I'm afraid - though not so tight as my
boys downstairs, who only have the one room. But Mr Bliss
did insist on a decent bit of space for the two of you.' She
smiled at me, and I looked away. Kitty, however, said very
brightly: 'It's perfect, Mrs Dendy. Miss Astley and I will be
as cosy here as two peg-dolls in a dolls' house - won't we,
Her cheeks, I saw, had grown a little pink - but that might
have been from the climb up from the parlour. I said, 'We
will', and lowered my gaze again; then moved to take a box
from Mr Bliss.
Mr Bliss himself did not stay long after that - as if he
thought it indelicate to linger in a lady's chamber, even one
he was paying for himself. He exchanged a few words with
Kitty regarding her appointment on the morrow at the
Bermondsey Star - for she had to meet the manager, and
rehearse with the orchestra, in the morning, in preparation
for her first appearance in the evening - then he shook her
hand, and mine, and bade us farewell. I felt as anxious,
suddenly, at the thought of him leaving us, as I had done a
few hours before at the prospect of meeting him at all.
But when he had gone - and when Mrs Dendy, too, had
closed the door on us and wheezed and coughed her way
downstairs behind him -I lowered myself into one of the
armchairs and closed my eyes, and felt myself ache with
pleasure and relief simply to be alone at last with someone
who was more to me than a stranger. I heard Kitty step
across the luggage, and when I opened my eyes she was at
my side and had raised a hand to tug at a lock of hair which
had come loose from my plait and was falling over my
brow. Her touch made me stiffen again: I was still not used
to the easy caresses, the hand-holdings and cheek-strokings,
of our friendship, and every one of them made me flinch
slightly, and colour faintly, with desire and confusion.
She smiled, then bent to tug at the straps of the basket at her
feet; and after a moment of idling in the armchair, watching
her busy herself with dresses and books and bonnets, I rose
to help her.
It took us an hour to unpack. My own few poor frocks and
shoes and underclothes took up little enough space, and
were stowed away in a moment; but Kitty, of course, had
not only her everyday dresses and boots to unpack and
brush and straighten, but also her suits and toppers. When
she started on these, I moved to take them from her. I said,
'You must let me take charge of your costumes now, you
know. Look at these collars! They all need whitening. Look
at these stockings! We must keep a drawer for the ones that
have been cleaned, and another for the ones that need
mending. We must keep these links in a box or they will be
lost. . .'
She stepped aside, and let me fuss over the studs and gloves
and shirt-fronts, and for a minute or two I worked in
silence, quite absorbed. I looked up at last to find her
watching me; and when I caught her eye she winked and
blushed at once. 'You cannot know,' she said then, 'how
horribly smug I feel. Every second-rate serio longs to have
a dresser, Nan. Every hopeful, tired little actress who ever
set foot upon a provincial stage aches to play the London
halls - to have two nice rooms, instead of one, miserable
one - to have a carriage to take her to the show at night, and
drive her home, afterwards, while other, poorer, artistes
must take the tram.' She was standing beneath the slope of
the ceiling, her face in shadow and her eyes dark and large.
'And now, suddenly, I have all these things, that I have
dreamed of having for so long! Do you know how that must
feel, Nan, to be given your heart's desire, like that?'
I did. It was a wonderful feeling - but a fearful one, too, for
you felt all the time that you didn't deserve your own good
fortune; that you had received it quite by error, in someone
else's place - and that it might be taken from you while your
gaze was turned elsewhere. And there was nothing you
would not do, I thought, nothing you would not sacrifice, to
keep your heart's desire once you had been given it. I knew
that Kitty and I felt just the same - only, of course, about
different things.
I should have remembered this, later.
We unpacked, as I have said, for an hour, and while we
worked I caught the sound of various shouts and stirrings in
the rest of the house. Now - it was six o'clock or so — there
came the creak of footsteps on the landing beneath ours,
and a cry: 'Miss Butler, Miss Astley!' It was Mrs Dendy,
come to tell us that there was a bit of dinner for us, if we
wanted it, in the downstairs parlour - and 'quite a crowd,
besides, that'd like to meet you'.
I was hungry, but also weary, and sick of shaking hands and
smiling into strangers' faces; but Kitty whispered that we
had better go down, or the other lodgers would think us
proud. So we called to Mrs Dendy to give us a moment, and
while Kitty changed her dress I combed and re-plaited my
hair, and beat the dust from the hem of my skirt into the
fireplace, and washed my hands; and then we made our way
The parlour was a very different room, now, to the one that
we had sat and taken tea in on our arrival. The table had
been opened out and pulled into the centre of the room, and
set for dinner; more importantly, it was ringed with faces,
every one of which looked up as we appeared and broke
into a smile -the same quick, well-practised smile which
shone from all the pictures on the walls. It was as if half-adozen of the portraits had come to life and stepped from
behind their dusty panes to join Mrs Dendy for supper.
There were eight places set — two of them vacant and
waiting, clearly, for Kitty and me, but the rest all taken. Mrs
Dendy herself was seated at the head of the table; she was
in the process of dishing out slices from a plate of cold
meats, but half rose when she saw us, to bid us make
ourselves at home, and to gesture, with her fork, to the
other diners - first to an elderly gentleman in a velvet
waistcoat who sat opposite to her.
'Professor Emery,' she said, without a hint of selfconsciousness. 'Mentalist Extraordinary.'
The Professor rose then, too, to make us a little bow.
'Mentalist Extraordinary, ah, as was,' he said with a glance
at our landlady. 'Mrs Dendy is too kind. It has been many
years since I last stood before a hushed and gaping crowd,
guessing at the contents of a lady's purse.' He smiled, then
sat rather heavily. Kitty said that she was very pleased to
know him. Mrs Dendy pointed next to a thin, red-headed
boy on the Professor's right.
'Sims Willis,' she said. 'Corner Man -'
'Corner Man Extraordinary, of course,' he said quickly,
leaning to shake our hands. 'As is. And this' - nodding to
another hoy across the table from himself - 'this is Percy,
my brother, who plays the Bones. He's also extraordinary.'
As he spoke Percy gave a wink and, as if to prove his
brother's words, caught up a pair of spoons from the side of
his plate, and set them rattling upon the tablecloth in a
wonderful tattoo.
Mrs Dendy cleared her throat above the noise, then
gestured to the pretty, pink-lipped girl who had the seat
next to Sims. 'And not forgetting Miss Flyte, our ballerina.'
The girl gave a simper. 'You must call me Lydia,' she said,
extending a hand, 'which is what I am known as at - do
cheese it, Percy! — what I am known as at the Pav. Or
Monica, if you prefer, which is my real name.'
'Or Tootsie,' added Sims, 'which is what her pals all call her
- and if you've read Ally Sloper's I'll leave you to work out
why. Only let me say, Miss Butler, that she was in half a
panic when Walter told us he was moving you in, lest you
turn out to he some flashy show-girl with a ten-inch waist.
When she learned you were a male impersonator, why, she
turned quite gentle with relief.'
Tootsie gave him a push. 'Pay no mind to him,' she said to
us, 'he is always teasing. I am very pleased to have another
girl about the place - two girls, I should say - flashy or
otherwise.' As she spoke she gave me a quick, satisfied
glance that showed plain enough which kind she thought I
was; then - as Kitty took the seat beside her, leaving me
with Percy for a neigh-hour - she went on: 'Walter says you
will be very big, Miss Butler. I hear you're to start at the
Star tomorrow night. I remember that as a very fine hall.'
'So I've heard. Do call me Kitty
'And what about you, Miss Astley?' asked Percy as they
chatted. 'Have you been a dresser for long? You seem awful
young for it.'
'I'm not really a dresser at all, yet. Kitty is still training me
'Training you up?' This was Tootsie again. 'Take my advice
and don't train her too well, Kitty, or some other artiste'll
take her from you. I've seen that happen.'
Take her from me?' said Kitty with a smile. 'Oh, I couldn't
have that. It is Nan that brings me my good luck ..."
I looked at my plate, and felt myself redden, until Mrs
Dendy, still busy with her platter, held a piece of quivering
meat my way and coughed: 'A bit of tongue, Miss Astley
The supper-talk was all, of course, theatrical tittle-tattle,
and terribly dense and strange to my ears. There was no one
in that house, it seemed, who had not some link with the
profession. Even plain little Minnie - the eighth member of
our party, the girl who had brought us tea on our arrival and
had returned now to help Mrs Dendy dish and serve and
clear the plates - even she belonged to a ballet troupe, and
had a contract at a concert hall in Lambeth. Why, even the
dog, Bransby, which soon nosed its way into the parlour to
beg for scraps, and to lean his slavering jaw against
Professor Emery's knee -even he was an old artiste, and had
once toured the South Coast in a dancing dog act, and had a
stage name: 'Archie'.
It was a Sunday night, and nobody had a hall to rush to
after supper; no one seemed to have anything to do, indeed,
except sit and smoke and gossip. At seven o'clock there was
a knock upon the door, and a girl came halloo-ing her way
into the house with a dress of tulle and satin and a gilt tiara:
she was a friend of Tootsie's from the ballet at the Pav
come to ask Mrs Dendy's opinion of her costume. While the
frock was spread out on the parlour rug, the supper-things
were carried off; and when the table was cleared the
Professor sat at it and spread a deck of cards. Percy joined
him, whistling; his tune was taken up by Sims, who raised
the lid of Mrs Dendy's piano and began to strike the melody
out on that. The piano was a terrible one -'Damn this cheesy
old thing!' cried Sims as he hit at it. 'You could play
Wagner on it, and I swear it would come out sounding like
a sea-shanty or a jig!' - but the tune was gay and it made
Kitty smile.
'I know this,' she said to me; and since she knew it she
couldn't help but sing it, and had soon stepped over the
sparkling frock upon the floor to lift her voice for the
chorus at Sims's side.
I sat on the sofa with Bransby, and wrote a postcard to my
family. 'I am in the queerest-looking parlour you ever saw,'
I wrote, 'and everybody is extremely kind. There is a dog
here with a stage-name! My landlady says to thank you for
the oysters . . .'
It was very cosy on the sofa, with everyone about me so
gay; hut at half-past ten or so Kitty yawned - and at that I
gave a jump, and rose, and said it was my bedtime. I paid a
hasty visit to the privy out the back, then ran upstairs and
changed into my nightgown double-quick - you might have
thought I had been kept from sleeping for a week and was
about to die of tiredness. But I was not sleepy at all; it was
only that I wanted to be safely abed before Kitty appeared safely still and calm and ready for that moment that must
shortly come, when she would be beside me in the dark,
and there would be nothing but the two flimsy lengths of
our cotton nightgowns to separate her own warm limbs
from mine.
She came about a half-hour later. I didn't look at her or say
her name, and she didn't greet me, only moved very quietly
about the room - assuming, I suppose, I was asleep, for I
was lying very straight on my side and had my eyes hard
shut. There was a little noise from the rest of the house - a
laugh, and the closing of a door, and the rushing of water
through distant pipes. But then all was calm again; and soon
there were only the gentle sounds of her undressing: the
tiny volley of thuds as she pulled at the buttons on her
bodice; the rustle of her skirt, and then of her petticoat; the
sighing of the laces through the eyes of her stays. At last
there came the slap of her feet on the floorboards, and I
guessed that she must be quite naked.
I had turned the gas down, but left a candle burning for her.
I knew that if I opened my eyes now, and tilted my face, I
should see her clad in nothing but shadows and the candleflame's amber glow.
But I did not turn; and soon there was another rustling, that
meant she had pulled on her nightgown. In a moment the
light was extinguished; the bed creaked and heaved; and
she was lying beside me, very warm and horribly real.
She sighed. I felt her breath upon my neck and knew that
she was gazing at me. Her breath came a second time, and
then a third, then: 'Are you asleep?' she whispered.
'No,' I said, for I could pretend no longer. I rolled on to my
back. The movement brought us even closer together - it
really was an extremely narrow bed - so I shifted, rather
hurriedly, to my left, until I could not have shifted any
further without falling out. Now her breath was upon my
cheek, and warmer than before.
She said, 'Do you miss your home, and Alice?' I shook my
head. 'Not just a little?'
'Well ..."
I felt her smile. Very gently - but quite matter-of-factly she moved her hand to my wrist, pulled my arm above the
bedclothes, and ducked her head beneath it to place her
temple against my collar-bone, my arm about her neck. The
hand that dangled before her throat she squeezed, and held.
Her cheek, against my shallow breast, felt hotter than a flatiron.
'How your heart beats!' she said — and at that, of course, it
beat faster. She sighed again - this time her mouth was at
the opening of my nightgown, and I felt her breath upon the
naked skin beneath - she sighed and said, 'So many times I
lay in that dull room at Mrs Pugh's and thought of you and
Alice in your little bed beside the sea. Was it just like this,
being with her?'
I didn't answer her. I, too, was thinking back to that little
bed. How hard it had been, having to lie next to slumbering
Alice, my heart and my head all filled with Kitty. How
much harder would it be to have Kitty herself beside me, so
close and so unknowing! It would be a torture. I thought: I
shall pack my trunk tomorrow. I shall get up very early and
catch the first train back . . .
Kitty spoke on, not minding my silence. 'You and Alice,'
she was saying again. 'Do you know, Nan, how jealous I
was . . . ?'
I swallowed. 'Jealous?' The word sounded terrible in the
'Yes, I -' She seemed to hesitate; then, 'You see,' she went
on, 'I never had a sister like other girls did . . .' She let go of
my hand, and placed her arm over my middle, curling her
fingers around the hollow of my waist. 'But we're like
sisters now, aren't we Nan? You'll be a sister to me — won't
I patted her shoulder stiffly. Then I turned my face away quite dazed, with mixed relief and disappointment. I said,
'Oh yes, Kitty,' and she squeezed me tighter.
Then she slept, and her head and arm grew slack and heavy.
I, however, lay awake - just as I had used to lie at Alice's
side. But now I did not dream; I only spoke to myself rather
I knew that I would not, after all, pack my bags in the
morning and bid Kitty farewell; I knew that, having come
so far, I could not. But if I were to stay with her, then it
must be as she said; I must learn to swallow my queer and
inconvenient lusts, and call her 'sister'. For to be Kitty's
sister was better than to be Kitty's nothing, Kitty's no one.
And if my head and my heart -and the hot, squirming centre
of me - cried out at the shame of it, then I must stifle them.
I must learn to love Kitty as Kitty loved me; or never be
able to love her at all.
And that, I knew, would be terrible.
Chapter 4
The Star, when we reached it at noon the next day, turned
out to be not a tenth as smart as those marvellous West End
halls before which we had leaned, with Mr Bliss, to dream
of Kitty's triumph; even so, however, it was quite
alarmingly handsome and grand. Its manager at this time
was a Mr Ling; he met us at the stage door and took us to
his office, to read aloud the terms of Kitty's contract and
secure her signature upon it; but then he rose and shook our
hands and shouted for the call-boy, and had us shown,
rather briskly, to the stage. Here, self-conscious and
awkward, I waited while Kitty spoke with the conductor
and ran through her songs with the band. Once a man
approached me, with a broom on his shoulder, and asked
me rather roughly who I was and what I did there.
'I'm waiting for Miss Butler,' I said, my voice as thin as a
'Are you, then,' he said. 'Well, sweetheart, you'll have to
wait somewhere else, for I've to sweep this spot, and you
are in my way. Go on, now.' And I moved away, blushing
horribly, and had to stand in a corridor while boys with
baskets and ladders and pails of sand lumbered by me,
looking me over, or cursing when I blocked their path.
Our return visit, however, in the evening, was an easier one,
for then we went straight to the dressing-room, where I
knew my part a little better. Even so, when we entered the
room I felt my spirits tumble rather, for it was nothing like
the cosy little chamber at the Canterbury Palace, which
Kitty had had all to herself, and which I was used to
keeping so neat and nice. Instead it was dim and dusty, with
benches and hooks for a dozen artistes, and one greasy sink
that must be shared by all, and a door that must be propped
shut or left to sag and let in every glance of every stagehand and visitor that might be idling in the passageway
beyond. We arrived late, and found most of the hooks
already taken, and several of the benches occupied by girls
and women in varying stages of undress. They looked up
when we arrived, and smiled, most of them; and when Kitty
took out her packet of Weights and a match, someone cried,
'Thank God, a woman with a cigarette! Give us one, ducks,
would you? I'm quite broke till pay-day.'
Kitty was booked to appear that night, a little way into the
first half of the show. While I helped her with her collar and
her neck-tie and her rose, I felt quite steady; but when we
walked to the wing to wait for her number to go up, to gaze
from the shadows at the unfamiliar theatre and its vast and
careless crowd, I felt myself begin to tremble. I looked at
Kitty. Her face was white beneath its layer of paint - though
whether with fear, or with fierce ambition, I could not tell.
With no other motive, I swear, than to comfort her - so
mindful was I of that new resolve, to play her sister and
nothing more - I took her hand, and pressed it.
When the stage-manager finally gave her his nod, however,
I had to turn my eyes away. There was no chairman at this
hall to bring the crowd to order, and the act Kitty had to
follow was a popular one - a comedian, who had been
called back upon the stage four times, and who had had to
plead with the audience, in the end, to let him make his exit.
They had done so grudgingly; they were disappointed and
distracted now when the orchestra struck up with the first
bars of Kitty's opening song. When Kitty herself stepped
out into the glare of the footlights to wave her hat and call
'Hallo!', there was no answering roar from the gallery, only
a half-hearted ripple of applause from the boxes and stalls for the sake, I suppose, of her costume. When I forced my
gaze at last into the hall I saw that the audience was restless
- that people were on their feet, heading for the bar or the
lavatory; that boys were perched upon the gallery rail with
their backs to us; that girls were calling to friends three
rows away, or gossiping with their neighbours, looking
everywhere but at the stage, where Kitty - lovely, clever
Kitty - sang and strode and sweated.
But slowly, slowly, the mood of the theatre changed - not
tremendously, but enough. When she finished her first song
a man leaned from a balcony to shout, 'Now bring Nibs
back on!' - meaning Nibs Fuller, the comedian whom Kitty
had replaced. Kitty didn't blink; while the band played the
warm-up to her next number she raised her hat to the man
and called, 'Why, does he owe you money?' The crowd
laughed -and listened more carefully to her next song, and
clapped more briskly when she finished it. When, a little
later, another man tried to call for Nibs, he was shushed by
his neighbours; and by the time Kitty got round to her
ballad and her bit of business with the rose the hall was on
her side, attentive and appreciative.
From my station at the side of the stage I watched her in
wonder. When she stepped into the wing, weary and
flushed, and her place was taken by a comic singer, I put
my hand upon her arm and pressed it hard. Then Mr Bliss
appeared with Mr Ling the manager. They had been
watching from the front, and looked very satisfied; the
former took Kitty's hand in both of his and shook it, crying,
'A triumph, Miss Butler! A triumph, if ever I saw one.'
Mr Ling was more restrained. He gave Kitty a nod, then
said, 'Well done, my dear. A difficult crowd, and you
handled it admirably. Once the band has grasped the pacing
of your business and your strolls — well, you will be
splendid.' Kitty only frowned. I had brought a towel with
me from the change-room, and this she now caught up, and
pressed to her face. Then she took her jacket off, and
handed it to me, and unfastened the bow-tie at her throat. 'It
wasn't so good,' she said at last, 'as I might have wished it.
There was no-fizz, no sparkle.'
Mr Bliss gave a snort, then spread his hands. 'My dear, your
first night in the capital! A theatre larger than you have ever
worked before! The crowd will come to know you, word
will spread. You must be patient. Soon they will be buying
tickets just for you!' At that I saw the manager glance his
way through narrowed eyes; but Kitty, at least, allowed
herself to smile. 'That's better,' said Mr Bliss then. 'And
now, if you'll permit me, ladies, I believe a light little
supper would be welcome. A light little supper - and,
perhaps, a heavy large glass with some of that fizz in it,
Miss Butler, that you seem so keen on.'
The restaurant to which he took us was a theatre people's
one, not very far away, and filled with gentlemen in fancy
waistcoats just like himself, and with girls and boys like
Kitty, with streaks of greasepaint on their cuffs and crumbs
of spit-black in the corners of their eyes. He seemed to have
a friend at every table, every one of whom saluted him as
he passed by; but he did not pause to chat with them, only
waved his hat in general greeting, then led us to an empty
booth and called to a waiter for a recitation of the bill of
fare. When this was done, and we had made our choices, he
beckoned the man a little closer and murmured something
to him; the waiter withdrew, and returned a minute later
with a champagne bottle, which Mr Bliss proceeded
ostentatiously to uncork. At that, there was a cheering at the
other tables; and a woman began to sing, amidst much
laughter and applause, that she wouldn't call for sherry, and
she wouldn't call for beer, and she wouldn't call for cham
because she knew 'twould make her queer . . .
I thought of the postcard I would write when I got home: 'I
have had supper in a theatrical restaurant. Kitty made her
debut at the Star and they are calling it a triumph ..."
Meanwhile, Mr Bliss and Kitty chatted; and when next I
concentrated on their talk I realised that it was rather
'Now,' Mr Bliss was saying, 'I am going to ask you to do
something which, if I were any other kind of gentleman
than a theatrical agent, I should be quite ashamed to. I am
going to ask you to go about the city - and you must assist
her, Miss Astley,' he added when he saw me looking - 'you
must both of you go about the city and study the men!'
I gazed at Kitty and blinked, and she smiled back
uncertainly. 'Study the men?' she said.
'Scrutinise 'em!' said Mr Bliss, sawing at a piece of cutlet.
'Catch their characters, their little habits, their mannerisms
and gaits. What are their histories? What are their secrets?
Have they ambitions? Have they hopes and dreams? Have
they sweethearts they have lost? Or have they only aching
feet, and empty bellies?' He waved his fork. 'You must
know it; and you must copy them, and make your audience
know it in their turn.'
'Do you mean, then,' I asked, not understanding, 'to change
Kitty's act?'
'I mean, Miss Astley, to broaden Kitty's repertoire. Her
masher is a very fine fellow; but she cannot walk the
Burlington Arcade, in lavender gloves, for ever.' He gazed
at Kitty again, then wiped his mouth with a napkin and
spoke in a more confiding tone. 'What think you of a
policeman's jacket? Or a sailor's blouse? What think you of
peg-top trousers or a pearly coat?' He turned to me. 'Only
imagine, Miss Astley, all the handsome gentlemen's toggery
that languishes, at this very minute, at the bottom of some
costumier's hamper, waiting, simply waiting, for Kitty
Butler to step inside it and lend it life! Only think of all
those more than handsome fabrics -those ivory worsteds,
those rippling silks, those crimson velvets and scarlet
shalloons; only hear the snip of the tailor's scissors, the
prick of the sempstress's needle; only imagine her success,
decked as a soldier, or a coster, or a prince . . .'
He paused at last, and Kitty smiled. 'Mr Bliss,' she said, 'I
do believe you could persuade a one-armed man into a
juggling turn, the way you talk.'
He laughed, and struck the table with his hand so that the
cutlery rattled: it turned out that he had a one-armed juggler
for a client, and was billing him - with great success - as
'The Second Cinquevalli: Half the Capacity, Double the
And it was all quite as he promised and directed. He sent us
to costumiers and tailors, and had Kitty decked out in a
dozen different gentlemanly guises; and when the suits
were made he sent us to photographers, to have her likeness
taken as she held a policeman's whistle to her lip, or
shouldered a rifle or a sailor's rope. He found songs to fit
the costumes, and brought them round to Ginevra Road
himself, to strike them out on Mrs Dendy's terrible old
piano for Kitty to try, and for the rest of us to listen to and
consider. Most importantly of all he secured contracts, at
halls in Hoxton, and Poplar, and Kilburn, and Bow. Within
a fortnight, Kitty's London career was fairly launched. Now
she did not change into her ordinary girl's clothes when she
finished her act at the Star; instead, I stood with her coat
and her basket ready, and when she stepped from before the
footlights we ran together to the stage door, to where our
brougham waited to lumber fitfully with us through the city
traffic to the next theatre. Now, instead of wearing one suit
for the whole of her turn she wore three or four; and I was
her dresser in real earnest, helping her tear at buttons and
links while the orchestra played between the songs, and the
audience waited, half-way between expectation and
impatience, for her to reappear.
The hours we kept now, of course, were rather strange ones,
for as long as Kitty continued to work two, three or four
halls a night we would arrive back at Ginevra Road at halfpast twelve or one, weary and aching but still giddy and hot
from our moonlit criss-crossings of the city, our anxious
waits in dressing-rooms and wings. Here we would find
Sims and Percy, and Tootsie and her girl- and boy-friends,
all fresh and flushed and gay as we, making tea and cocoa,
Welsh rabbit and pancakes, in Mrs Dendy's kitchen. Then
Mrs Dendy herself would appear - for she had kept
theatrical lodgers for so long she had begun to keep
theatrical hours, too - and suggest a game of cards, or a
song or a dance. It could not long be kept secret, in that
house, that I liked to sing and had a pretty voice, and so
sometimes I might raise a chorus or two, along with Kitty.
Now I never went to bed before three, and never woke in
the morning before nine or ten o'clock - so swiftly and
completely had I forgotten my old oyster-maidish habits.
I did not, of course, forget my family or my home. I sent
them cards, as I have said; I sent them notices of Kitty's
shows, and gossip from the theatre. They sent me letters in
return, and little parcels - and, of course, barrels of oysters,
which I passed on to my landlady to let her dish to us all at
supper. And yet, somehow, my letters home grew more and
more infrequent, my replies to their cards and presents
increasingly tardy and brief. 'When are you coming to see
us?' they would write at the end of their letters. 'When are
you coming home to Whitstable?' And I would answer,
'Soon, soon . . .' or, 'When Kitty can spare me ..."
But Kitty never could spare me. The weeks passed, the
season changed; the nights grew longer and darker and
cold. Whitstable became - not dimmer, in my mind, but
overshadowed. It was not that I didn't think of Father and
Mother, of Alice and Davy and my cousins - just that I
thought of Kitty, and my new life, more . . .
For there was so very much to think about. I was Kitty's
dresser, but I was also her friend, her adviser, her
companion in all things. When she learned a song I held the
sheet, to prompt her if she faltered. When tailors fitted her I
watched and nodded, or shook my head if the cut was
wrong. When she let herself be guided by the clever Mr
Bliss - or 'Walter' I should call him, for so, by now, he had
become to us, just as we were 'Kitty' and 'Nan' to him when she let herself be guided by Walter, and spent hours
as he had advised in shops and market squares and stations
studying the men, I went with her; and we learned together
the constable's amble, the coster's weary swagger, the smart
clip of the off-duty soldier.
And as we did so we seemed to learn the ways and manners
of the whole unruly city; and I grew as easy, at last, with
London, as with Kitty herself- as easy, and as endlessly
fascinated and charmed. We visited the parks - tho'se great,
handsome parks and gardens, that are so queer and verdant
in the midst of so much dust, yet have a little of the
pavements' quickness in them, too. We strolled the West
End; we sat and gazed at all the marvellous sights - not just
the grand, celebrated sights of London, the palaces and
monuments and picture galleries, but also the smaller,
swifter dramas: the overturning of a carriage; the escape of
an eel from an eel-man's barrow; the picking of a pocket;
the snatching of a purse.
We visited the river - stood on London Bridge, and
Battersea Bridge, and all the bridges in between, just so that
we might look, and marvel, at the great, stinking breadth of
it. It was the Thames, I knew, which widened at its estuary
to form the kind, clear, oyster-bearing sea I had grown up
on. It gave me an odd little thrill, as I stood gazing at the
pleasure-boats beneath Lambeth Bridge, to know that I had
journeyed against the current - had made the trip from
palpitating metropolis to mild, uncomplicated Whitstable in
reverse. When I saw barges bringing fish from Kent I only
smiled - it never made me homesick. And when the bargemen turned, to make the journey back along the river, I did
not envy them at all.
And while we strolled and gazed and grew ever more
sisterly and content, the year drew to a close; we continued
to labour over the act, and Kitty herself became something
of a success. Now, every contract that Walter found her was
longer and more generous than the last; soon she was overbooked, and turning offers down. Now she had admirers gentlemen, who sent her flowers and dinner invitations
(which - to my secret relief- she only laughed over and put
aside); boys, who asked for her picture; girls, who gathered
at the stage door to tell her how handsome she was - girls I
hardly knew whether to pity, patronise or fear, so closely
did they resemble me, so easily might they have had my
role, I theirs.
And yet, with all this, she did not become what she longed
to be, what Walter had promised her she would be: a star.
The halls she worked remained the suburban ones, and the
better class of East End ones (and once or twice the not-sonice ones - Foresters, and the Sebright, where the crowd
threw boots and trotter-bones at the acts they didn't like).
Her name never rose much or grew larger on the music-hall
notices; her songs were never hummed or whistled about
the streets. The problem, Walter said, lay not with Kitty
herself but with the nature of her act. She had too many
rivals; male impersonation - once as specialised as platespinning - had suddenly, inexplicably, become a cruelly
overworked routine.
'Why does every young lady who wants to do her bit of
business on the stage these days want to do it in trousers?'
he asked us, exasperated, when yet another male
impersonator made her debut on the London circuit. 'Why
does every perfectly respectable comedienne and serio
suddenly want to change her act - to pull a pair of bellbottoms on, and dance the hornpipe? Kitty, you were born
to play the boy, any fool can see it; were you an actress on
the legitimate stage you would be Rosalind, or Viola, or
Portia. But these tuppeny-ha'penny impersonators - Fannie
Leslie, Fanny Robina, Bessie Bonehill, Millie Hylton - they
look about as natural in their dinner-jackets as I would, clad
in a crinoline or a bustle. It makes me rage' - he was seated
in our little parlour as he spoke, and here he slapped the
arm of his chair, so that the ancient seams gave a fart of
dust and hair - 'it makes me rage to see girls with a tenth of
your talent getting all the bookings that should be yours and worse! all the fame.' He stood, and placed his hands
upon Kitty's shoulders. 'You are on the very edge of
stardom,' he said, giving her a little push so that she had to
grasp his arms to stop herself from falling. There must be
something, something that we can do to just propel you
over - something we can add to your act to set it apart from
that of all those other prancing schoolgirls!'
But, however hard we worked, we could not find it; and
meanwhile Kitty continued at the lesser theatres, in the
humbler districts - Islington, Marylebone, Battersea,
Peckham, Hackney - circling Leicester Square, crossing the
West End on her nightly trips from hall to hall, but never
entering those palaces of her and Walter's dreams: the
Alhambra, and the Empire.
To be honest, I didn't much mind. I was sorry, for Kitty's
sake, that her great new London career was not quite so
great as she had hoped for; but I was also, privately,
relieved. I knew how clever and charming and lovely she
was, and while a part of me wanted, like Walter, to share
the knowledge with the world, a greater part longed only to
hug it to myself, to keep it secret and secure. For I was sure
that, were she truly famous, I would lose her. I didn't like it
when her fans sent flowers, or clamoured at the stage door
for photographs and kisses; more fame would bring more
flowers, more kisses - and I could not believe that she
would go on laughing at the gentlemen's invitations, could
not believe that one day, amongst all those admiring girls,
there wouldn't be one she would like better then me . . .
If she were famous, too, then she would also be richer. She
might buy a house - we should have to leave Ginevra Road
and all our new friends in it; we should have to leave our
little sitting-room; we should have to leave our bed, and
take separate chambers. I could not bear the thought of it. I
had grown used, at last, to sleeping with Kitty at my side. I
no longer trembled, or grew stiff and awkward, when she
touched me, but had learned to lean into her embraces, to
accept her kisses, chastely, nonchalantly - and even,
sometimes, to return them. I had grown used to the sight of
her slumbering or undressed. I did not hold my breath in
wonder when I opened my eyes upon her face, still and
shadowed in the thin grey light of dawn. I had seen her strip
to wash or to change her gown. I was as familiar with her
body, now, as with my own - more so, indeed, because her
head, her neck, her wrists, her back, her limbs (which were
as smooth and as rounded and as freckled as her cheek), her
skin (which she wore with a marvellous, easy grace, as if it
were another kind of handsome suit, perfectly tailored and
pleasant to wear), were, I thought, so much lovelier and
more fascinating than my own.
No, I didn't want a single thing to change - not even when I
learned something about Walter that was rather
Inevitably, we had spent so many hours with Walter working upon songs at Mrs Dendy's piano, or supping with
him after shows - that we had begun to look upon him less
as Kitty's agent and more as a friend, to both of us. In time
it wasn't only working-days that we were spending with
him, but Sundays, too; eventually, indeed, Sundays with
Walter became the rule rather than the exception, and we
began to listen out for the rumble of his carriage in Ginevra
Road, the pounding of his boots upon our attic stairs, his
rap upon our parlour door, his foolish, extravagant
greetings. He would bring bits of news and gossip; we
would drive into town, or out of it; we would stroll together
- Kitty with her hand in the crook of one of his great arms,
me with mine in the crook of the other, Walter himself like
a blustering uncle, loud and lively and kind.
I thought nothing of it, except that it was pleasant, until one
morning as I sat eating my breakfast beside Kitty and Sims
and Percy and Tootsie. It was a Sunday, and Kitty and I
were rather tardy; when Sims heard who it was that we
were rushing for, he gave a cry: 'My word, Kitty, but
Walter must be expecting marvellous things of you! I've
never known him spend so much time with an artiste
before. Anyone would think he was your beau!' He seemed
to say it guilelessly enough; but as he did so I saw Tootsie
smile and give a sideways glance at Percy - and, worse!
saw Kitty blush and turn her face away - and all at once I
understood what they all knew, and cursed to think I had
not guessed it sooner. A half-hour later, when Walter
presented himself at the parlour door, offering a gleaming
cheek to Kitty and crying 'Kiss me, Kate!', I didn't smile,
but only bit my lip, and wondered.
He was a little in love with her; perhaps, indeed, rather
more than a little. I saw it now - saw the dampness of the
looks he sometimes turned upon her, and the awkwardness
of the glances which, more hastily, he turned away. I saw
how he seized every foolish opportunity to kiss her hand, or
pluck her sleeve, or place his arm, heavy and clumsy with
desire, about her slender shoulders; I heard his voice catch,
sometimes, or grow thick, when he addressed her. I saw and
heard it all, now, because - it was the very reason that had
kept me blind and deaf to it before! - because his passion
was my own, which I had long grown used to thinking
unremarkable, and right.
I almost pitied him; I almost loved him. I did not hate him or if I did, it was only as one loathes the looking-glass, that
shows one one's imperfect form in strict and fearful clarity.
Nor did I now begin to resent his presence on those strolls
and visits that I should otherwise have made with Kitty on
my own. He was my rival, of sorts; but in some queer way
it was almost easier to love her in his company, than out of
it. His presence gave me a licence to be bold and gay and
sentimental, as he was; to be able to pretend to worship her
- which was almost as good as being able to worship her in
And if I still longed yet feared to hold her - well, as I have
said, the fact that Walter felt the same showed that both my
reticence and my love were only natural and proper. She
was a star - my private star - and I would be content, I
thought, like Walter, to fly about her on my stiff and distant
orbit, unswervingly, for ever.
I could not know how soon we would collide, nor how
By now it was December - a cold December to match the
sweltering August, so cold that the little skylight above our
staircase at Ma Dendy's was thick with ice for days at a
time; so cold that when we woke in the mornings our breath
showed grey as smoke, and we had to pull our petticoats
into bed with us and dress beneath the sheets.
At home in Whitstable we hated the cold, because it made
the trawler-men's job so much the harder. I remember my
brother Davy sitting at our parlour fire on January evenings,
and weeping, simply weeping with pain, as the life returned
to his split and frozen hands, his chilblained feet. I
remember the ache in my own fingers as I handled pail after
frigid pail of winter oysters, and transferred fish, endlessly,
from icy sea-water to steaming soup.
At Mrs Dendy's, however, everybody loved the winter
months; and the colder they were, they said, the better.
Because frosts, and chill winds, fill theatres. For many
Londoners a ticket to the music hall is cheaper than a
scuttle of coal - or, if not cheaper, then more fun: why stay
in your own miserable parlour stamping and clapping to
keep the cold out when you can visit the Star or the
Paragon, and stamp and clap along with your neighbours and with Marie Lloyd as an accompaniment? On the very
coldest nights the music halls are full of wailing infants:
their mothers bring them to the shows rather than leave
them to slumber - perhaps to death — in their damp and
draughty cradles.
But we didn't worry much over the frozen babies at Mrs
Dendy's house that winter; we were merely glad and
careless, because ticket sales were high and we were all in
work and a little richer than before. At the beginning of
December Kitty got a spot on the bill at a hall in
Marylebone, and played there twice a night, all month. It
was pleasant to sit gossiping in the green room between
shows, knowing that we had no frantic trips to make across
London in the snow; and the other artistes - a juggling
troupe, a conjuror, two or three comic singers and a dwarf
husband-and-wife team, 'The Teeny Weenies' - were all as
complacent as we, and very jolly company.
The show ended at Christmas. I should, perhaps, have
passed the holiday in Whitstable, for I knew my parents
would be disappointed not to have me there. But I knew,
too, what Christmas dinner would be like at home. There
would be twenty cousins gathered around the table, all
talking at once, all stealing the turkey from one another's
plates. There would be such a fuss and stir they could not
possibly, I thought, miss me - but I knew that Kitty would if
I left her for them; and I knew, besides, that I should miss
her horribly and only make the occasion miserable for
everybody else. So she and I spent it together - with Walter,
as ever, in attendance - at Mrs Dendy's table, eating goose,
and drinking toast after toast to the coming year with
champagne and pale ale.
Of course, there were gifts: presents from home, which
Mother forwarded with a stiff little note that I refused to let
shame me; presents from Walter (a brooch for Kitty, a hatpin for me). I sent parcels to Whitstable, and gave gifts at
Ma Dendy's; and for Kitty I bought the loveliest thing that I
could find: a pearl - a single flawless pearl that was
mounted on silver and hung from a chain. It cost ten times
as much as I had ever spent on any gift before, and I
trembled when I handled it. Mrs Dendy, when I showed it
to her, gave a frown. 'Pearls for tears,' she said, and shook
her head: she was very superstitious. Kitty, however,
thought it beautiful, and had me fasten it about her neck at
once, and seized a mirror to watch it swinging there, an
inch beneath the hollow of her lovely throat. 'I'll never take
it off,' she said; and she never did, but wore it ever after even on the stage, beneath her neck-ties and cravats.
She, of course, bought me a gift. It came in a box with a
bow, and wrapped in tissue, and turned out to be a dress:
the most handsome dress I had ever possessed, a long, slim
evening dress of deepest blue, with a cream satin sash about
the waist, and heavy lace at the bosom and hem; a dress, I
knew, that was far too fine for me. When I drew it from its
wrappings and held it up against me before the glass, I
shook my head, quite stricken. 'It's beautiful,' I said to Kitty,
'but how can I keep it? It's far too smart. You must take it
back, Kitty. It's too expensive.'
But Kitty, who had watched me handle it with dark and
shining eyes, only laughed to see me so uneasy. 'Rubbish!'
she said. 'It's about time you started wearing some decent
frocks, instead of those awful old schoolgirlish things you
brought with you from home. I have a decent wardrobe and so should you. Goodness knows we can afford it. And
anyway, it can't go back: it was made just for you, like
Cinderella's slipper, and is too peculiar a size to fit anybody
Made just for me? That was even worse! 'Kitty,' I said, 'I
really cannot. I should never feel comfortable in it..."
'You must,' she said. 'And, besides' - she fingered the pearl
that I had so recently placed about her neck, and looked
away - 'I am doing so well, now. I can't have my dresser
running round in her sister's hand-me-downs for ever. It
ain't quite the thing, now is it?' She said it lightly - but all at
once I saw the truth of her words. I had my own income
now -I had spent two weeks' wages on her pearl and chain;
but I had a Whitstable squeamishness, still, about spending
money on myself. Now I blushed to think that she had ever
thought me dowdy.
And so I kept the dress for Kitty's sake; and wore it, for the
first time, a few nights later. The occasion was a party - an
end-of-season party at the Marylebone theatre at which we
had spent such a happy month. It was to be a very grand
affair. Kitty had a new frock of her own made for it, a
lovely, low-necked, short-sleeved gown of China satin,
pink as the warm pink heart of a rose-bud. I held it for her
to step into, and helped her fasten it; then watched her as
she pulled her gloves on - aching all the time with the
prettiness of her, for the blush of the silk made her red lips
all the redder, her throat more creamy, her eyes and hair all
the browner and more rich. She wore no jewellery but the
pearl that I had given her, and the brooch that had been
Walter's gift. They didn't really match - the brooch was of
amber. But Kitty could have worn anything - a string of
bottle-tops about her neck - and still, I thought, look like a
Helping Kitty with her buttons made me slow with my own
dressing; I said that she should go on down without me.
When she had done so I pulled on the lovely gown that she
had given me, then stepped to the glass to study myself and to frown at what I saw. The dress was so transforming
it was practically a disguise. In the half-light it was dark as
midnight; my eyes appeared bluer above it than they really
were, and my hair paler, and the long skirt, and the sash,
made me seem taller and thinner than ever. I did not look at
all like Kitty had, in her pink frock; I looked more like a
boy who had donned his sister's ball-gown for a lark. I
loosened my plait of hair, then brushed it - then, because I
had no time to tie and loop it, twisted it into a knot at the
back of my head, and stuck a comb in it. The chignon, I
thought, brought out the hard lines of my jaw and cheekbones, made my wide shoulders wider still. I frowned
again, and looked away. It would have to do - and would
have the merit, I supposed, of making Kitty look all the
daintier at my side.
I went downstairs to join her. When I pushed at the parlour
door I found her chatting with the others; they were all still
at supper. Tootsie saw me first - and must have nudged
Percy, beside her, for he glanced up from his plate and,
catching sight of me, gave a whistle. Sims turned my way,
then, and looked at me as if he had never seen me before, a
forkful of food suspended on its journey to his open mouth.
Mrs Dendy followed his gaze, then gave a tremendous
cough. 'Well, Nancy!' she
said, 'and look at you! You have become quite the
handsome young lady - and right beneath our noses!'
And at that, Kitty herself turned to me - and showed me
such a look of wonder and confusion that it was as if, just
for a second, she had never seen me before; and I do not
know whose cheeks at that moment were the pinker - mine,
or hers.
Then she gave a tight little smile. 'Very nice,' she said, and
looked away; so that I thought, miserably, that the dress
must suit me even less than I had hoped, and readied myself
for a wretched party.
But the party was not wretched; it was gay and genial and
loud, and very crowded. The manager had had to build a
platform from the end of the stage to the back of the pit, to
carry us all, and he had hired the orchestra to play reels and
waltzes, and set tables in the wings bearing pastries and
jellies, and barrels of beer and bowls of punch, and row
upon row of bottles of wine.
We were much complimented, Kitty and I, on our new
dresses; and over me, in particular, people smiled and
exclaimed - mouthing at me across the noisy hall, 'How fine
you look!' One woman - the conjuror's assistant - took my
hand and said, 'My dear, you're so grown-up tonight, I
didn't recognise you!': just what Mrs Dendy had said an
hour before. Her words impressed me. Kitty and I stood
side by side all evening but when, some time after
midnight, she moved away to join a group that had gathered
about the champagne tables, I hung back, rather pensive. I
wasn't used to thinking of myself as a grown-up woman,
but now, clad in that handsome frock of blue and cream,
satin and lace, I began at last to feel like one -and to realise,
indeed, that I was one: that I was eighteen, and had left my
father's house perhaps for ever, and earned my own living,
and paid rent for my own rooms in London. I watched
myself as if from a distance - watched as I supped at my
wine as if it were ginger beer, and chatted and larked with
the stage-hands, who had once so frightened me; watched
as I took a cigarette from a fellow from the orchestra, and
lit it, and drew upon it with a sigh of satisfaction. When had
I started smoking? I couldn't remember. I had grown so
used to holding Kitty's fag for her while she changed suits,
that gradually I had taken up the habit myself. I smoked so
often, now, that half my fingers - which, four months
before, had been permanently pink and puckered, from so
many dippings in the oyster-tub — were now stained
yellow as mustard at the tips.
The musician - I believe he played the cornet - took a small,
insinuating step my way. 'Are you a friend of the manager's,
or what?' he said. 'I haven't seen you in the hall before.'
I laughed. 'Yes you have. I'm Nancy, Kitty Butler's dresser.'
He raised his eyebrows, and leaned away to look me up and
down. 'Well! and so you are. I thought you was just a kid.
But here, just now, I took you for an actress, or a dancer.'
I smiled, and shook my head. There was a pause while he
sipped at his glass and wiped at his moustache. 'I bet you
dance a treat, though, don't you?' he said then. 'How about
it?' He nodded to the crush of waltzing couples at the back
of the stage.
'Oh, no,' I said. 'I couldn't. I've had too much cham.'
He laughed: 'All the better!' He put his drink aside, gripped
his cigarette between his lips, then put his hands on my
waist and lifted me up. I gave a shriek; he began to turn and
dip, in a clownish approximation of a waltz-step. The
louder I laughed and shrieked, the faster he turned me. A
dozen people looked our way, and smiled and clapped.
At last he stumbled and almost fell, then put me down with
a thump. 'Now,' he said breathlessly, 'tell me I ain't a
marvellous dancer.'
'You ain't,' I said. 'You've made me giddy as a fish, and' - I
felt at the front of my dress - 'you have spoiled my sash!'
'I'll fix that for you,' he said, reaching for my waist again. I
gave a yelp, and stepped out of his grasp.
'No you won't! You can push off and leave me in peace.'
Now he seized me, and tickled me so that I giggled. Being
tickled always makes me laugh, however little I care for the
tickler; but after several more minutes of this kind of thing
he at last gave up on me, and went back to his pals in the
I ran my hands over my sash again. I feared he really had
spoiled it, but couldn't see well enough to be sure. I finished
my drink with a gulp - it was, I suppose, my sixth or
seventh glass - and slipped from the stage. I made my way
first to the lavatory, then headed downstairs to the changeroom. This had been opened tonight only so that the ladies
should have a place to hang their coats, and it was cold and
empty and rather dim; but it had a looking-glass: and it was
to this that I now stepped, squinting and tugging at my
dress to pull it straight.
I had been there for no longer than a minute when there
came the sound of footsteps in the passageway beyond, and
then a silence. I turned my head to see who was there, and
found that it was Kitty. She had her shoulder against the
doorframe and her arms folded. She wasn't standing as one
normally stands — as she usually stood - in an evening
gown. She was standing as she did when she was on stage,
with her trousers on - rather cockily. Her face was turned
towards me and I couldn't see her rope of hair, or the swell
of her breasts. Her cheeks were very pale; there was a stain
upon her skirt where some champagne had dripped upon it
from an over-spilling glass.
'Wot cheer, Kitty,' I said. But she did not return my smile,
only watched me, levelly. I looked uncertainly back to the
glass, and continued working at my sash. When she spoke
at last, I knew at once that she was rather drunk.
'Seen something you fancy?' she said. I turned to her again
in surprise, and she took a step into the room.
'I said, "Seen something you fancy, Nancy?" Everybody
else here tonight seems to have. Seems to have seen
something that has rather caught their eye.'
I swallowed, unsure of what reply to make to her. She
walked closer, then stopped a few paces from me, and
continued to fix me with the same even, arrogant gaze. 'You
were very fresh with that horn-player, weren't you?' she
said then.
I blinked. 'We were just having a bit of a lark.'
'A bit of a lark? His hands were all over you.'
'Oh Kitty, they weren't!' My voice almost trembled. It was
horrible to see her so savage; I don't believe that, in all the
weeks that we had spent together, she had ever so much as
raised her voice to me in impatience.
'Yes they were,' she said. 'I was watching - me and half the
party. You know what they'll be calling you soon, don't
you?' "Miss Flirt".'
Miss Flirt! Now I didn't know whether to cry or to laugh.
'How can you say such a thing?' I asked her.
'Because it's true.' She sounded all at once rather sullen. 'I
wouldn't have bought you such a fine dress, if I'd known
you were only going to wear it to go flirting in.'
'Oh!' I stamped my foot, unsteadily -I was as drunk, I
suppose, as she was. 'Oh!' I put my fingers to the neck of
my gown, and began to fumble with its fastenings. 'I shall
take the dam' dress off right here and you shall have it
back,' I said, 'if that's how you feel about it!'
At that she took another step towards me and seized my
arm. 'Don't be a fool,' she said in a slightly chastened tone. I
shook her off and continued to work - quite fruitlessly,
since the wine, together with my anger and surprise, had
made me terribly clumsy - at the buttons of my frock. Kitty
took hold of me again; soon we were almost tussling.
'I won't have you call me a flirt!' I said as she tugged at me.
'How could you call me one? How could you? Oh! If you
just knew -' I put my hand to the back of my collar; her
fingers followed my own, her face came close. Seeing it, I
felt all at once quite dazed. I thought I had become her
sister, as she wanted. I thought I had my queer desires
cribbed and chilled and chastened. Now I knew only that
her arm was about me, her hand on mine, her breath hot
upon my cheek. I grasped her - not the better to push her
away, but in order to hold her nearer.
Gradually we ceased our wrestling and grew still, our
breaths ragged, our hearts thudding. Her eyes were round
and dark as jet; I felt her fingers leave my hand and move
against my neck.
Then all at once there came a blast of noise from the
passageway beyond, and the sound of footsteps. Kitty
started in my arms as if a pistol had been fired, and took a
half-dozen steps, very rapidly, away. A woman - Esther, the
conjuror's assistant - appeared on the other side of the open
doorway. She was pale, and looked terribly grave. She said:
'Kitty, Nan, you won't believe it.' She reached for her
handkerchief, and put it to her mouth. 'There's some boys
just come, from the Charing Cross Hospital. They are
saying Gully Sutherland is there' - this was the comic singer
who had appeared with Kitty at the Canterbury Palace 'they are saying Gully is there - that he has got drunk, and
shot himself dead!'
It was true - we all heard, next day, how horribly true it
was. I should never have suspected it, but had learned since
coming to London that Gully was known in the business as
something of a lush. He never finished a show without
calling into a public-house on his way home; and on the
night of our party he had been drinking at Fulham. Here, all
hidden in a corner stall, he had overheard a fellow at the bar
say that Gully Sutherland was past his best, and should
make way for funnier artistes; that he had sat through
Gully's latest routine, and all the gags were flat ones. The
bar-man said that when Gully heard this he went to the man
and shook him by the hand, and bought him a beer, then he
bought beer for everyone. Then he went home and took a
gun, and fired it at his own heart. . .
We didn't know all of this that night at Marylebone, we
knew only that Gully had had a kind of fit, and taken his
life; but the news put an end to our party and left us all, like
Esther, nervous and grave. Kitty and I, on hearing the news,
went up to the stage - she seizing my hand as we stumbled
up the steps, but in grief now, I thought, rather than
anything warmer. The manager had had all the house-lights
lit, and the band had lain their instruments aside; some
people were weeping, the cornet-player who had tickled me
had his arm about a trembling girl. Esther cried, 'Oh isn't it
awful, isn't it horrible!' -I suppose the wine made everybody
feel the shock of it the more.
I, however, did not know what to make of it. I couldn't
think of Gully at all: my thoughts were still with Kitty, and
with that moment in the change-room, when I had felt her
hand on me and seemed to feel a kind of understanding leap
between us. She hadn't looked at me since then, and now
she had gone to talk to one of the boys who had brought the
news of Gully's suicide. After a moment, however, I saw
her shake her head and step away, and seem to search for
me; and when she saw me - waiting for her, in the shadows
of the wing - she came and sighed. 'Poor Gully. They say
his heart was shot right through ..."
'And to think,' I said, 'it was for Gully's sake that I first went
to Canterbury and saw you ..."
She looked at me, then, and trembled; and put a hand to her
cheek, as if made weak with sorrow. But I dared not move
to comfort her - only stood, miserable and unsure.
When I said that we should go - since other people were
now leaving - she nodded. We returned to the change-room
for our coats: its jets were all flaring now, and there were
white-faced women in it with handkerchiefs before their
eyes. Then we stepped to the stage door, and waited while
the doorman found a cab for us. This seemed to take an age.
It was two o'clock or later before we started on our journey
home; and then we sat, on different seats, in silence - Kitty
repeating only, now and then: 'Poor Gully! What a thing to
do!', and I still drunk, still dazed, still desperately stirred,
but still uncertain.
It was a bitterly cold and beautiful night - perfectly quiet,
once we had left the clamour of the party behind us, and
still. The roads were foggy, and thick with ice: every so
often I felt the wheels of our carriage slide a little, and
caught the sound of the horse's slithering, uncertain step,
and the driver's gentle curses. Beside us the pavements
glittered with frost, and each street-lamp glowed, in the fog,
from the centre of its own yellow nimbus. For long
stretches, ours was the only vehicle on the streets at all; the
horse, the driver, Kitty and I might have been the only
wakeful creatures in a city of stone and ice and slumber.
At length we reached Lambeth Bridge, where Kitty and I
had stood only a few weeks before and gazed at the
pleasure-boats below. Now, with our faces pressed to the
carriage window, we saw it all transformed - saw the lights
of the Embankment, a belt of amber beads dissolving into
the night; and the great dark jagged bulk of the Houses of
Parliament looming over the river; and the Thames itself,
its boats all moored and silent, its water grey and sluggish
and thick, and rather strange.
It was this last which made Kitty pull the window down,
and call to the driver, in a high, excited voice, to stop. Then
she pushed the carriage door open, pulled me to the iron
parapet of the bridge, and seized my hand.
'Look,' she said. Her grief seemed all forgotten. Below us,
in the water, there were great slivers of ice six feet across,
drifting and gently turning in the winding currents, like
basking seals.
The Thames was freezing over.
I looked from the river to Kitty, and from Kitty to the
bridge on which we stood. There was no one near us save
our driver — and he had the collar of his cape about his
ears, and was busy with his pipe and his tobacco-pouch. I
looked at the river again - at that extraordinary, ordinary
transformation, that easy submission to the urgings of a
natural law, that was yet so rare and so unsettling.
It seemed a little miracle, done just for Kitty and me.
'How cold it must be!' I said softly. 'Imagine if the whole
river froze over, if it was frozen right down from here to
Richmond. Would you walk across it?'
Kitty shivered, and shook her head. 'The ice would break,'
she said. 'We would sink and drown; or else be stranded
and die of the cold!'
I had expected her to smile, not make me a serious answer.
I saw us floating down the Thames, out to sea - past
Whitstable, perhaps - on a piece of ice no bigger than a
The horse took a step, and its bridle jangled; the drive gave
a cough. Still we gazed at the river, silent and unmoving and both of us, finally, rather grave.
At last Kitty gave a whisper. 'Ain't it queer,' she said.
I made no answer, only stared at where the curdled water
swirled, thick and unwilling, about the columns of the
bridge beneath our feet. But when she shivered again I
moved a step closer to her, and felt her lean against me in
response. It was icy cold upon the bridge; we should have
moved back from the parapet into the shelter of the
carriage. But we were loath to leave the sight of the frozen
river - loath too, perhaps, to leave the warmth of one
another's bodies, now that we had found it.
I took her hand. Her fingers, I could feel, were stiff and
cold inside her glove. I placed the hand against my cheek; it
did not warm it. With my eyes all the time on the water
below I pulled at the button at her wrist, then drew the
mitten from her, and held her fingers against my lips to
warm them with my breath.
I sighed, gently, against her knuckles; then turned the hand,
and breathed upon her palm. There was no sound at all save
the unfamiliar lapping and creaking of the frozen river.
Then, 'Nan,' she said, very low.
I looked at her, her hand still held to my mouth and my
breath still damp upon her fingers. Her face was raised to
mine, and her gaze was dark and strange and thick, like the
water below.
I let my hand drop; she kept her fingers upon my lips, then
moved them, very slowly, to my cheek, my ear, my throat,
my neck. Then her features gave a shiver and she said in a
whisper: 'You won't tell a soul, Nan - will you?'
I think I sighed then: sighed to know - to know for sure, at
last! - that there was something to be told. And then I
dipped my face to hers, and shut my eyes.
Her mouth was chill, at first, then very warm - the only
warm thing, it seemed to me, in the whole of the frozen
city; and when she took her lips away - as she did, after a
moment, to give a quick, anxious glance towards our
hunched and nodding driver - my own felt wet and sore and
naked in the bitter January breezes, as if her kiss had flayed
She drew me into the shadow of the carriage, where We
were hidden from sight. Here we stepped together, and
kissed again: I placed my arms about her shoulders, and felt
her own hands shake upon my back. From lip to ankle, and
through all the fussy layers of our coats and gowns, I felt
her body stiff against my own - felt the pounding, very
rapid, where we joined at the breast; and the pulse and the
heat and the cleaving, where we pressed together at the
We stood like this for a minute, maybe longer; then the
carriage gave a creak as the driver shifted in his seat, and
Kitty stepped quickly away. I could not take my hands from
her, but she seized my wrists and kissed my fingers and
gave a kind of nervous laugh, and a whisper: 'You will kiss
the life out of me!'
She moved into the carriage, and I clambered in behind her,
trembling and giddy and half-blind, I think, with agitation
and desire. Then the door was closed; the driver called to
his pony, and the cab gave a jerk and a slither. The frozen
river was left behind us - dull, in comparison with this new
We sat side by side. She put her hands to my face again,
and I shivered, so that my jaws jumped beneath her fingers.
But she didn't kiss me again: rather, she leaned against me
with her face upon my neck, so that her mouth was out of
reach of mine, but hot against the skin below my ear. Her
hand, that was still bare of its glove and white with cold,
she slid into the gap at the front of my jacket; her knee she
laid heavily against my own. When the brougham swayed I
felt her lips, her fingers, her thigh come ever more heavy,
ever more hot, ever more close upon me, until I longed to
squirm beneath the pressing of her, and cry out. But she
gave me no word, no kiss or caress; and in my awe and my
innocence I only sat steady, as she seemed to wish. That
cab-ride from the Thames to Brixton was, in consequence,
the most wonderful and most terrible journey I have ever
At last, however, we felt the carriage turn, then slow, and
finally stop, and heard the driver thump upon the roof with
the butt of his whip to tell us we were home: we were so
quiet, perhaps he thought we slumbered.
I remember a little of our entry into Mrs Dendy's - the
fumbling at the door with the latch-key, the mounting of the
darkened stairs, our passage through that still and sleeping
house. I remember pausing on the landing beneath the
skylight, where the stars showed very small and bright, and
silently pressing my lips to Kitty's ear as she bent to unlock
our chamber door; I remember how she leaned against it
when she had it shut fast behind us, and gave a sigh, and
reached for me again, and pulled me to her. I remember that
she wouldn't let me raise a taper to the gas-jet - but made us
stumble to the bedroom through the darkness.
And I remember, very clearly, all that happened there.
The room was bitter cold - so cold it seemed an outrage to
take our dresses off and bare our flesh; but an outrage, too,
to some more urgent instinct to keep them on. I had been
clumsy in the change-room of the theatre, but I was not
clumsy now. I stripped quickly to my drawers and chemise,
then heard Kitty cursing over the buttons of her gown, and
stepped to help her. For a moment - my fingers tugging at
hooks and ribbons, her own tearing at the pins which kept
her plait of hair in place -we might have been at the side of
a stage, making a lightning change between numbers.
At last she was naked, all except for the pearl and chain
about her neck; she turned in my hands, stiff and pimpled
with cold, and I felt the brush of her nipples, and of the hair
between her thighs. Then she moved away, and the bedsprings creaked; and at that, I didn't wait to pull the rest of
my own clothes off but followed her to the bed and found
her shivering there, beneath the sheets. Here we kissed
more leisurely, but also more fiercely, than we had before;
at last the chill - though not the trembling - subsided.
Once her naked limbs began to strain against my own,
however, I felt suddenly shy, suddenly awed. I leaned away
from her. 'May I really - touch you?' I whispered. She gave
again a nervous laugh, and tilted her face against her
'Oh Nan,' she said, 'I think I shall die if you don't!'
Tentatively, then, I raised my hand, and dipped my fingers
into her hair. I touched her face - her brow, that curved; her
cheek, that was freckled; her lip, her chin, her throat, her
collar-bone, her shoulder . . . Here, shy again, I let my hand
linger - until, with her face still tilted from my own and her
eyes hard shut, she took my wrist and gently led my fingers
to her breasts. When I touched her here she sighed, and
turned; and after a minute or two she seized my wrist again,
and moved it lower.
Here she was wet, and smooth as velvet. I had never, of
course, touched anyone like this before - except,
sometimes, myself; but it was as if I touched myself now,
for the slippery hand which stroked her seemed to stroke
me: I felt my drawers grow damp and warm, my own hips
jerk as hers did. Soon I ceased my gentle strokings and
began to rub her, rather hard. 'Oh!' she said very softly;
then, as I rubbed faster, she said 'Oh!' again. Then, 'Oh, oh,
oh!': a volley of 'Oh!'s, low and fast and breathy. She
bucked, and the bed gave an answering creak; her own
hands began to chafe distractedly at the flesh of my
shoulders. There seemed no motion, no rhythm, in all the
world, but that which I had set up, between her legs, with
one wet fingertip.
At last she gasped, and stiffened, then plucked my hand
away and fell back, heavy and slack. I pressed her to me,
and for a moment we lay together quite still. I felt her heart
beating wildly in her breast; and when it had calmed a little
she stirred, and sighed, and put a hand to her cheek.
'You've made me weep,' she murmured.
I sat up. 'Not really, Kitty?'
'Yes, really.' She gave a twitch that was half laughter, half a
sob, then rubbed at her eyes again, and when I took her
fingers from her face I could feel the tears upon them. I
pressed her hand, suddenly uncertain: 'Did I hurt you? What
did I do that was bad? Did I hurt you, Kitty?'
She shook her head, and sniffed, and laughed more freely.
'Hurt me? Oh no. It was only - so very sweet.' She smiled.
'And you are - so very good. And I -' She sniffed again,
then placed her face against my breast and hid her eyes
from me. 'And I - oh, Nan, I do so love you, so very, very
I lay beside her, and put my arms about her. My own desire
I quite forgot, and she made no move to remind me of it. I
forgot, too, Gully Sutherland - who three hours before had
put a gun to his own heart, because a man had sat through
his routine unsmiling. I only lay; and soon Kitty slept. And
I studied her face, where it showed creamy pale in the
darkness, and thought She loves me, She loves me - like a
fool with a daisy-stalk, endlessly exclaiming over the same
last browning petal.
The next morning we were shy together, at first - and Kitty,
I think, was the shyest of all.
'How much we drank, last night!' she said, not gazing at
me; and for a terrible second I thought it might really have
been only the champagne that made her cling to me, and
say that she loved me, so very very much . . . But as she
spoke she blushed. I said, before I could stop myself: 'If you
unsay all those things you said last night, oh Kitty, I'll die!'
and that made her raise her eyes to mine, and I saw that she
had simply been anxious, that I might only have been drunk
.. . And then we gazed and gazed at one another; and for all
that I had gazed at her a thousand times before, I felt now
that I was looking at her as if for the first time. We had
lived and slept and laboured, side by side, for half a year;
but there had been a kind of veil between us, that our cries
and whispers of the night before had quite torn down. She
looked flushed, washed - new-born; so that I could hardly
press her skin, for fear of marking it - so that I feared,
almost, to kiss her lips again in case they bruised.
But I did kiss them; and then I lay, quite at my leisure, and
watched as she splashed water on her face and arms, and
fastened on her underclothes and frock, and buttoned her
shoes. As she worked at her hair I lit a cigarette: I struck the
match and let it burn almost to my fingers, gazing at the
flame as it ate its way along the wood. I said, 'When I first
knew you, I used to think that, whenever I thought of you, I
was all lit up, like a lamp. I was afraid that people would
see ..." She smiled. I gave the match a shake. 'Didn't you
know,' I said then, 'didn't you know, that I loved you?'
'I'm not sure,' she answered; then she sighed. 'I didn't like to
think of it.'
'Why not?'
She shrugged. 'It seemed easier to be your friend
'But Kitty, that's just what I thought! And oh! wasn't it
terribly hard! But I thought, that if you knew I liked you as
a, as a sweetheart - well, I never heard of such a thing
before, did you?'
She moved to the glass to work again at the pins in her
plait, and now, without turning, she said, 'It's true I never
cared for any other girl, like I care for you . . .' As she said
it I saw her neck and ears grow pink, and felt myself grow
weak and warm and silly in response; but I caught a
glimpse of something, too, behind her words.
'It has happened before, then,' I said flatly, 'with you . . .'
She grew redder than ever, but would make me no reply;
and I fell silent. But the fact was, I loved her too much to
want to fret for very long about the other girls she might
have kissed before me. 'When was it,' I asked next, 'that you
began to think of me like . . . When did you begin to think
that you might learn to - to love me?'
Now she did turn, and smiled. 'I remember a hundred little
times,' she said. 'I remember how you made my dressingroom so nice and neat; I remember your blushes as I kissed
you good-night. I remember how you opened an oyster for
me at your father's table -but then, I think I loved you then,
already. Indeed, I'm ashamed to say, that it must have been
that moment, at the Canterbury Palace, when I first smelled
the oyster-liquor on your fingers, that I began to think of
you as -as I shouldn't have.'
'And I'm even more ashamed to say,' she went on in a
slightly different tone, 'that it wasn't until last night - when I
saw you larking with that boy, and was so jealous - that I
learned how much, how much ..."
'Oh, Kitty ..." I swallowed. 'I'm glad you learned it, at last.'
She looked away, then came to me and took my fag, and
gave me one brisk kiss.
'So am I.'
After that she bent to rub with a cloth at the leather of her
boots, and I found myself yawning: I was weary, and rather
sick from the champagne and the excitements of the night. I
said, 'Must we really get up?' and Kitty nodded.
'We must - for it's almost eleven, and Walter will be here
soon. Had you forgotten?'
It was a Sunday, and Walter was coming, as usual, to take
us driving. I had not forgotten - but had had no time and no
desire, yet, to think of ordinary things. Now, at the mention
of Walter's name, I grew thoughtful. It would be rather hard
on him, now that this had happened.
As if Kitty knew what I was thinking, she said, 'You will be
sensible with Walter, won't you, Nan?' Then she repeated
what she had said the night before upon the bridge: 'You
won't let on, will you, to anyone? You will be careful won't you?'
I silently cursed her for being so prudent; but took her hand
and kissed it. 'I have been being careful since the first
minute I saw you. I am the Queen of Carefulness. I shall go
on being careful for ever, if you like - so long as I might be
a bit reckless, sometimes, when we are quite alone.'
Her smile, when she gave it, was a little distracted. 'After
all,' she said, 'things have not changed, so very much.' But I
knew that everything had changed - everything.
At length I rose too, and washed and dressed and used the
chamber-pot, while Kitty went downstairs. She came back
with a tray of tea and toast - 'I could hardly look Ma Dendy
in the eye!' she said, all shy and red again - and we had our
breakfast in our own parlour, before the fire, kissing the
crumbs and butter from one another's lips.
There was a hamper of suits beneath the window, that we
had had sent over from a costumier's and not yet properly
examined; and now, as we waited for Walter, Kitty began
rather idly to sort through it. She pulled out a black tailcoat, very fine. 'Look at this!' she said. She slipped it on
over her dress, and did a stiff little dance; then she began,
very lightly, to sing.
'In a house, in a square, in a quadrant,' she sang, 'In a street,
in a lane, in a road; Turn to the left, on the right hand, You
see there my true love's abode.'
I smiled. This was an old song of George Leybourne's:
everyone had used to whistle it in the 'seventies, and I had
even once seen it sung by Leybourne himself, at the
Canterbury Palace. It was a silly, nonsensical, but rather
infectious kind of song, and Kitty sang it all the sweeter for
singing it so softly and carelessly.
'I go there a courting and cooing,
To my love, like a dove.
And swearing on my bended knee,
If ever I cease to love,
May sheep's heads grow on apple trees,
If ever I cease to love.'
I listened for a while, then raised my voice with hers for the
'If ever I cease to love,
If ever I cease to love,
May the moon be turned into green cheese,
If ever I cease to love.'
We laughed, then sang louder. I found a hat in the hamper,
and tossed it to Kitty, then pulled out a jacket and a boater
for myself, and a walking-cane. I linked my arm with hers,
and imitated her dance. The song grew sillier.
'For all the money that's in the bank,
For the title of lord or duke,
I wouldn't exchange the girl I love,
There's bliss in every look.
To see her dance the polka,
I could faint with radiant love,
May the Monument a hornpipe dance,
If ever I cease to love!
May we never have to pay the Income Tax,
If ever I cease to love!'
We finished with a flourish, and I attempted a twirl - then
froze. Kitty had left the door ajar, and Walter stood at it
watching us, his eyes as wide as if he had had some sort of
fright. I felt Kitty's gaze follow mine; she gripped my arm,
then dropped it sharply. I thought wildly of what he might
have seen. The words of the song were foolish but,
unmistakably, we had sung them to one another, and meant
them. Had we also kissed? Had I touched Kitty where I
shouldn't have?
While I still wondered, Walter spoke. 'My God,' he said. I
bit my lip - but he didn't frown, or curse, as I expected.
Instead he broke into a great beaming smile, and slapped
his hands together, and stepped into the room to seize us
both excitedly by the shoulders.
'My God - that's it! That's it! Why, oh why, didn't I see it
before! That is what we have been looking for. This, Kitty'
– he gestured to our jackets, our hats, our gentlemanly
poses - 'this will make us famous!'
And so the day that I became Kitty's sweetheart was also
the day that I joined her act, and began my career - my
brief, unlooked-for, rather wonderful career — on the
music-hall stage.
A; first, the prospect of joining Kitty upon the stage, in a
profession for which I had never been trained, never
yearned, and had - as I thought - no special talent, filled me
with dismay.
'No,' I said to Walter that afternoon, when at last I
understood him. 'Absolutely not. I cannot. You, of all
people, should know what a fool I would make of myself and of Kitty!'
But Walter wouldn't listen.
'Don't you see?' he said. 'How long have we been looking
for something that will lift the act above the ordinary, and
make it really memorable? This is it! A double act! A
soldier - and his comrade! A swell - together with his
chum! Above all: two lovely girls in trousers, instead of
one! When did you ever see the like of it before? It will be
a sensation!'
'It might be a sensation,' I said, 'with two Kitty Butlers in it.
But Kitty Butler and Nancy Astley, her dresser, who never
sang a song in her life -'
'We have all heard you sing,' said Walter, 'a thousand times
- and very prettily, too.'
'Who never danced -' I went on.
'Pooh, dancing! A bit of shuffling about the stage. Any fool
with half a leg can do it.'
'Who never raised her voice before a crowd -'
'Patter!' he said carelessly. 'Kitty can take care of the patter!'
I laughed, in sheer exasperation, then turned to Kitty
herself. So far she had taken no part in the exchange, only
stood at my side, biting at the edge of one of her nails, and
frowning. 'Kitty,' I said now, 'for goodness' sake, tell him
what madness he is talking!'
She didn't answer at first, but continued to chew
distractedly at her fingertip. She looked from me to Walter,
then back to me again, and narrowed her eyes.
'It might work,' she said.
I stamped my foot. 'Now you have both lost your minds,
entirely! Think what you're saying. You come from families
where everybody is an actor. You live all your lives in
houses like this, where even the dam' dog is a dancing one.
Four months ago I was an oyster-girl in Whitstable!'
'Four months before Bessie Bellwood made her debut,'
Walter replied, .'she was a rabbit-skinner in the New Cut!1
He put his hand upon my arm. 'Nan,' he said kindly, 'I am
not pressing you, but let us see if this thing will work, at
least. Will you just go and take a suit of Kitty's, and try it
on properly? And Kitty, you go and get fitted up, too. And
then we'll see what the two of you look like, side by side.'
I turned to Kitty. She gave a shrug. 'Why not?' she said.
It seems strange to think that, in all my weeks of handling
so many lovely costumes, I had never thought to try one on
myself; but I had not. The piece of sport with the jacket and
the boater had been a novel one, born of the gaiety of that
marvellous morning; until then Kitty's suits had seemed too
handsome, too special - above all, too peculiarly hers, too
fundamental to her own particular magic and swank - for
me to fool with. I had cared for them and kept them neat;
but I had never so much as held one up in front of me,
before the glass. Now I found myself half-naked in our
chilly bedroom, with Kitty beside me with a costume in her
hand, and our roles quite reversed. I had removed my dress
and petticoats, and buttoned a shirt over my stays. Kitty had
found a morning-suit of black and grey for me to wear, and
had a similar costume ready for herself. She looked me
'You must take your drawers off,' she said quietly - the door
was shut fast, but Walter was audibly pacing the little
parlour beyond it - 'or else they'll bunch, beneath the
I blushed, then slid the drawers down my thighs and kicked
them off, so that I stood clad only in the shirt and a pair of
stockings, gartered at the knee. I had once, as a girl, worn a
suit of my brother's to a masquerade at a party. That,
however, had been many years before; it was quite
different, now, to pull Kitty's handsome trousers up my
naked hips, and button them over that delicate place that
Kitty herself had so recently set smarting. I took a step, and
blushed still harder. I felt as though I had never had legs
before - or, rather, that I had never known, quite, what it
really felt like to have two legs, joined at the top.
I reached for Kitty, and pulled her to me. 'I wish Walter
were not waiting for us,' I whispered - though, in truth,
there was something rather thrilling about embracing her, in
such a costume, with Walter so near and so unknowing.
That thought - and the soundless kiss which followed it made the trousers feel still stranger. When Kitty stepped
away to see to her own suit, I looked at her a little
wonderingly. I said, 'How can you dress like this, before a
hall of strangers, every night, and not feel queer?'
She fastened the clip of her braces, and shrugged. 'I have
worn sillier costumes.'
'I didn't mean that it was silly. I meant - well, if I were to be
beside you, in these' - I took another couple of steps - 'oh
Kitty, I don't think I should be able to keep from kissing
She put a finger to her lips; then pushed at the fringe of her
hair. She said, 'You will have to get used to it, for Walter's
plan to work. Otherwise - well, what a show that would be!;
I laughed; but the words Walter's plan had made my
stomach lurch in sudden panic, and the laughter sounded
rather hollow. I gazed down at my own two legs. The
trousers, after all, were far too short for me, and showed my
stockings at the ankle. I said, 'It won't do, will it, Kitty? He
won't really think that it will do - will he?'
He did. 'Oh yes!' he cried when we emerged at last together,
all dressed up. 'Oh yes, but what a team you make!' He was
more excited than I had ever seen him. He had us stand
together, with our arms linked; then he made us turn, and
do again the little stiff-legged dance that he had caught us at
before. And all the time he walked about us with narrowed
eyes, stroking his chin and nodding.
'We shall need a suit for you, of course,' he said to me. 'A
number of suits, indeed, to match Kitty's. But that we can
easily arrange.' He took my hat from my head, and my plait
fell down upon my shoulder. 'Something must he done
about your hair; but the colour, at least, is perfect - a
wonderful contrast with Kitty's, so the folk in the gallery
will have no trouble telling you apart.' He winked, then
stood surveying me a little longer with his hands behind his
head. He had removed his jacket. He wore a shirt of green
with a deep white collar - he was always a fancy dresser and the armpits of the shirt were dark with sweat. I said,
'You really mean it, Walter?' and he nodded: 'Nancy, I do.'
He kept us busy, that day, all through the afternoon. The
outing we had planned, the Sunday stroll, was all forgotten,
the driver who was waiting he paid off and sent away. The
house being empty, we worked at Mrs Dendy's piano, quite
as hard as if it were a weekday morning - except that now I
sang too, and not to save Kitty's voice, as I had sometimes
done before, but to try out my own alongside it. We sang
again the song that Walter had caught us singing, 'If Ever I
Cease to Love' - but, of course, we were self-conscious
now, and it sounded terribly lame. Then we tried some of
Kitty's songs, that I had heard her sing at Canterbury and
knew by heart; and they went a little better. And finally we
tried a new song, one of the West End songs that were
fashionable then - the one about strolling through Piccadilly
with a pocket so full of sovereigns all the ladies look, and
smile, and wink their eyes. It is sung by mashers even now;
but it was Kitty and I who had it first, and when we tried it
out together that afternoon - changing the author's T to 'we',
linking our arms, and promenading over the parlour-rug
with our voices raised in a harmony -well, it sounded
sweeter and more comical than I could have thought
possible. We sang it once, and then a second time, and then
a third and fourth; and each time I grew a little freer, a little
gayer, and a little less certain of the foolishness of Walter's
plan . . .
At length, when our throats were hoarse and our heads were
swimming with sovereigns and winks, he closed the piano
lid and let us rest. We made tea, and talked of other things.
I looked at Kitty and remembered that I had another, more
pressing, reason to be gay and giddy, and I began to wish
that Walter would leave us. That, and my tiredness, made
me dull with him: I believe he thought he had overworked
me. So very soon he did leave; and when the door was
closed on him I rose and went to Kitty, and put my arms
about her. She wouldn't let me kiss her in the parlour; but
after a moment she led me up through the darkening house,
back to our bedroom. Here the suit - which I had, indeed,
grown rather used to while strolling in it for Walter - began
to feel strange again. When Kitty undressed I pulled her to
me; and it was lewd to feel her naked hip come pressing in
between my trousered legs. She ran her hand once, very
lightly, over my buttons, until I began to shake with the
wanting of her. Then she drew the suit from me entirely and
we lay together, naked as shadows beneath the counterpane;
and then she touched me again.
We lay until the front door slammed, and we heard Mrs
Dendy's cough, and Tootsie laughing on the stair. Then
Kitty said we should rise, and dress, or the others might
wonder; and for the second time that day I lay and watched
her wash, and pull on stockings and a skirt, through lazy
As I did so, I put a hand to my breast. There was a dull
movement there, a kind of pulling or folding, or melting,
exactly as if my chest were the hot, soft wall of a candle,
falling in upon a burning wick. I gave a sigh. Kitty heard,
and saw my stricken face, and came to me; then she moved
my hand away and placed her lips, very softly, over my
I was eighteen, and knew nothing. I thought, at that
moment, that I would die of love for her.
We did not see Walter, and there was no more talk about
his plan to put me on the stage at Kitty's side until two
evenings later, when he arrived at Mrs Dendy's with a
parcel, marked Nan Astley. It was the last night of the year:
he had come to supper, and to stay to hear the chimes of
midnight with us. When at last they came - struck out upon
the bells of Brixton church - he raised his glass. To Kitty
and Nan!' he cried. He gazed at me, and then - more
lingeringly - at Kitty. 'To their new partnership, that will
bring fame and fortune to us all in 1889, and ever after!' We
were at the parlour-table with Ma Dendy and the Professor,
and now we joined our voices with his, and took up his
toast; but Kitty and I exchanged one swift, secret glance,
and I thought - with a little thrill of pleasure and triumph
that I couldn't quite suppress - poor man! how could he
know what we were really celebrating?
Only now did Walter present me with his package, and
smile to see me open it. But I knew already that it would
hold: a suit, a stage suit of serge and velvet, cut to my size
to the pattern of one of Kitty's - but blue to match my eyes,
where hers was brown. I held it up against me, and Walter
nodded. 'Now that,' he said, 'will make all the difference.
Just you trot upstairs and slip that on, and then we'll see
what Mrs Dendy has to say about it.'
I did as he asked; then paused for a moment to study myself
in the glass. I had put on a pair of my own plain black boots
and piled my hair up inside a hat. I had placed a cigarette
behind my ear -I had even taken off my stays, to make my
flat chest flatter. I looked a little like my brother Davy only, perhaps, rather handsomer. I shook my head. Four
nights before I had stood in the same spot, marvelling to see
myself dressed as a grown-up woman. Now, there had been
one quiet visit to a tailor's shop and here I was, a boy - a
boy with buttons and a belt. The thought, once again, was a
saucy one; I felt I ought not to encourage it. I went down at
once to the parlour, put my hands in my pockets and posed
before them all, and made ready to receive their praises.
When I stood turning upon the rug, however, Walter was
rather subdued, and Mrs Bendy thoughtful. When, at their
request, I took Kitty's arm and we sang a quick chorus,
Walter stood back, frowned, and shook his head.
'It's not quite right,' he said. 'It grieves me to say it, but - it
just won't do.'
I turned, in dismay, to Kitty. She was fiddling with her
necklace, sucking at the chain and tapping with the pearl
upon a tooth. She, too, looked grave. She said, There is
something queer about it; but I can't say what..."
I gazed down at myself. I took my hands from my pockets
and folded my arms, and Walter shook his head again. 'It's a
perfect fit,' he said. The colour is good. And yet there's
something - unpleasing - about it. What is it?'
Mrs Bendy gave a cough. Take a step,' she said to me. I did
so. 'Now a turn - that's right. Now be a dear and light me a
fag.' I did this for her too, then waited while she drew on
her cigarette and coughed again.
'She's too real,' she said at last, to Walter.
Too real?'
Too real. She looks like a boy. Which I know she is
supposed to - but, if you follow me, she looks like a real
boy. Her face and her figure and her bearing on her feet.
And that ain't quite the idea now, is it?'
Now I felt more awkward than ever. I looked at Kitty and
she gave a nervous kind of laugh. Walter, however, had lost
his frown, and his eyes looked blue and wide as a child's.
'Damn it, Ma,' he said, 'but you're right!' He put his hand to
his brow, then stepped to the door: we heard his heavy,
rapid tread upon the stairs, heard footsteps in the room
above our heads -Sims's and Percy's room - and then the
slam of a door, higher up. When he returned he held a
strange assortment of objects: a pair of gentleman's shoes, a
sewing-basket, a couple of ribbons, and Kitty's make-up
box. These he dumped about me on the carpet. Then, with a
hasty 'Pardon me, Nancy', he pulled the jacket from me, and
the boots. The jacket he handed to Kitty, along with the
sewing-basket: 'Put a few tucks down the inside of that
waist,' he said, pointing to the seam. The boots he cast
aside, and replaced with the pair of shoes - Sims's shoes
they were, and small, low-heeled and rather dainty; and
Walter made them daintier still by tying ribbons in a bow at
the laces. To advertise the bows a bit - and because, without
my boots, I was now a little shorter — he caught hold of the
bottom of my trouser-legs, and gave them cuffs.
Next he seized my head and tilted it back, and worked upon
my lips and lashes with carmine and spit-black from Kitty's
box: he did this gently as a girl. Then he plucked the
cigarette from behind my ear and cast it on to the mantel.
Finally he turned to Kitty and snapped his fingers. She,
infected by his air of haste and purpose, had begun to sew
as he had shown her. Now she raised the jacket to her cheek
to bite the final length of cotton from it, and when that was
done he took it from her and shrugged me into it and
buttoned it over my breast.
Then he stood back, and cocked his head.
I gazed down at myself once again. My new shoes looked
quaint and girlish, like a principal boy's in a pantomime.
The trousers were shorter, their line rather spoiled. The
jacket flared a little, above and below the waist, quite as if I
had hips and a bosom - but it felt tighter than before, and
not a half as comfortable. My face, of course, I could not
see: I had to turn and squint into a picture over the hearth,
and saw it reflected there - all eyes and lips - over the red
nose and whiskers of 'Rackity Jack'. I looked at the others.
Mrs Bendy and the Professor smiled. Kitty did not look at
all nervous, now. Walter was flushed, and seemed awed by
his own handiwork. He folded his arms.
'Perfect,' he said.
After that - clad not exactly as a boy but, rather
confusingly, as the boy I would have been, had I been more
of a girl - my entry into the profession was rather rapid. The
very next day Walter sent my costume to a seamstress, and
had it properly re-sewn; within a week he had borrowed a
hall and a band from a manager who owed him a favour,
and had Kitty and I, in our matching suits, practising upon
the stage. It was not at all like singing in Mrs Dendy's
parlour. The strangers, the dark and empty hall,
disconcerted me; I was still and awkward, quite unable to
master the few simple strolling steps that Kitty and Walter
tried patiently to teach me. At last Walter handed me a
cane, and said I should just stand and lean upon it, and let
Kitty dance; and that was better, and I grew easier, and the
song began to sound funny again. When we had finished
and were practising our bows, some of the men in the
orchestra clapped us.
Kitty sat and took a cup of tea, then; but Walter led me off
to a seat in the stalls, away from the others, and looked
'Nan,' he began, 'I told you when all this started that I would
not press you, and I meant it; I would give up the business
altogether before I forced a girl upon the stage against her
will. There are fellows who do that sort of thing, you know,
fellows who think of nothing but their own pockets. But I
am not one of them; and besides, you are my friend. But -'
he took a breath. 'We have come this far, the three of us;
and you are good - I promise you, you are good.'
'With work, perhaps,' I said doubtfully. He shook his head.
'Not even with that. Haven't you worked, these past six
months - harder than Kitty, almost? You know the act as
well as she; you know her songs, her bits of business - why,
you taught them to her, most of them!'
'I don't know,' I said. This is all so new, and strange. All my
life I've loved the music hall, but I never thought of getting
up upon the stage, myself..."
'Didn't you?' he said then. 'Didn't you, really?' Every time
you saw some little serio-comic captivate the crowd, at that
Palace of yours, in Canterbury, didn't you wish that it was
you? Didn't you close your eyes and see your name upon
the programmes, your number in the box? Didn't you sing
to your — oyster-barrel - as if it were a crowded hall, and
you could make those little fishes weep, or shriek with
I bit my nail, and frowned. 'Dreams,' I said.
He snapped his fingers. 'The very stuff thai stages are made
'Where would we start?' I said then. 'Who would offer us a
The manager here would. Tonight. I've already spoken with
'Just one song. He'll find space for you in his programme;
and if they like you, he'll keep you there.'
Tonight..." I looked at Walter in dismay. His face was very
kind, and his eyes seemed bluer and more earnest than ever.
But what he said made me tremble. I thought of the hall,
hot and bright and filled with jeering faces. I thought of that
stage, so wide and empty. I thought: I cannot do it, not even
for Walter's sake. Not even for Kitty's.
I made to shake my head. He saw, and quickly spoke again
-spoke, perhaps for the first time in all the months that I had
known him, with something that was almost guile. He said:
'You know, of course, that we cannot throw over the idea of
the double act, now that we have hit upon it. If you don't
wish to partner Kitty, there'll be some other girl who does.
We can spread the word, place notices, audition. You
mustn't feel that you are letting Kitty down
I looked from him to the stage, where Kitty herself sat on
the edge of a beam of limelight, sipping at her cup,
swinging her legs, and smiling at some word of the
conductor's. The thought that she might take another partner
- might stroll before the footlights with another girl's arm
through hers, another girl's voice rising and blending with
her own - had not occurred to me. It was more ghastly than
the image of the jeering hall; more ghastly than the prospect
of being laughed and hissed off a thousand, thousand stages
So when Kitty stood in the wing of the theatre that night,
waiting for the chairman's cry, I stood beside her, sweating
beneath a layer of grease-paint, biting my lips so hard I
thought they would bleed. My heart had beat fast for Kitty
before, in apprehension and passion; but it had never
thudded as it thudded now -I thought it would burst right
out of my breast, I thought I should be killed with fright.
When Walter came to whisper to us, and to fill our pockets
with coins, I could not answer him. There was a juggling
turn upon the stage. I heard the creaking of the boards as
the man ran to catch his batons, the clap-gasp-clap-gaspc/ieer of the audience as he finished his set; and then carne
the clack of a gavel, and the juggler ran by us, clutching his
gear. Kitty said once, very low, 'I love you!' - and I felt
myself half-pulled, half-thrust beneath the rising curtain,
and knew that I must somehow saunter and sing.
At first, so blinded was I by the lights, I couldn't see the
crowd at all; I could only hear it, rustling and murmuring loud, and close, it seemed, on every side. When at last I
stepped for a second out of the glare of lime, and saw all
the faces that were turned my way, I almost faltered and
lost my place - and would have done, I think, had not Kitty
at that moment pressed my arm and murmured, 'We have
them! Listen!' under cover of the orchestra. I did listen then
- and realised that, unbelievably, she was right: there were
claps, and friendly shouts; there was a rising hum of
expectant pleasure as we worked towards our chorus; there
was, finally, a bubbling cascade of cheers and laughter from
gallery to pit.
The sound affected me like nothing I had ever known
before. At once, I remembered the foolish dance that I had
failed, all day, to learn, and left off leaning on my stick to
join Kitty in her stroll before the footlights. I understood,
too, what Walter had wanted of us in the wing: as the new
song drew to a close I advanced with Kitty to the front of
the stage, drew out the coins that he had tipped into my
pocket - they were only chocolate sovereigns, of course, but
covered in foil to make them glitter - and cast them into the
laughing crowd. A dozen hands reached up to snatch them.
There were calls for an encore, then; but we, of course, had
none to make. We could only dance back beneath the
dropping curtain while the crowd still cheered and the
chairman called for order. The next act - a couple of trickcyclists - was pushed hurriedly on to take our place; but
even at the end of their set there were still one or two voices
calling for us.
We were the hit of the evening.
Back stage, with Kitty's lips upon my cheek, Walter's arm
about my shoulders, and exclamations of delight and praise
greeting me from every corner, I stood quite stunned,
unable either to smile at the compliments or modestly
disclaim them. I had passed perhaps seven minutes before
that gay and shouting crowd; but in those few, swift
minutes I had glimpsed a truth about myself, and it had left
me awed and quite transformed.
The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve
as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I
should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy.
I had, in short, found my vocation.
Next day, rather appropriately, I got my hair cut off, and
changed my name.
The hair I had barbered at a house in Battersea, by the same
theatrical hairdresser who cut Kitty's. He worked on me for
an hour, while she sat and watched; and at the end of that
time I remember he held a glass to his apron and said
warningly: 'Now, you will squeal when you see it — I
never cropped a girl before who didn't squeal at the first
look,' and I trembled in a sudden panic.
But when he turned the glass to show me, I only smiled to
see the transformation he had made. He had not clipped the
hair as short as Kitty's, but had left it long and falling,
Bohemian-like, quite to my collar; and here, without the
weight of the plait to pull it flat and lank, it sprang into a
slight, surprising curl. Upon the locks which threatened to
tumble over my brow he had palmed a little macassar-oil,
which turned them sleek as cat's fur, and gold as a ring.
When I fingered them - when I turned and tilted my head -I
felt my cheeks grow crimson. The man said then, 'You see,
you will find it queer,' and he showed me how I might wear
my severed plait, as Kitty wore hers, to disguise his
I said nothing; but it was not with regret that I had blushed.
I had blushed because my new, shorn head, my naked neck,
felt saucy. I had blushed because - just as I had done when I
first pulled on a pair of trousers - I had felt myself stir, and
grow warm, and want Kitty. Indeed, I seemed to want her
more and more, the further into boyishness I ventured.
Kitty herself, however, though she also smiled when the
barber displayed me, smiled more broadly when the plait
was re-affixed. 'That's more like it,' she said, when I stood
and brushed my skirts down. 'What a fright you looked in
short hair and a frock!'
Back at Ginevra Road we found Walter waiting for us, and
Mrs Dendy dishing up lunch; and it was here that I was
given a new name, to match my bold new crop.
For our debut at Camberwell we had thought that our
ordinary names would do as well as any, and had been
billed by the chairman as 'Kitty Butler and Nancy Astley'.
Now, however, we were a hit: Walter's manager friend had
offered us a four-week contract, and needed to know the
names he should have printed on the posters. We knew we
must keep Kitty's, for the sake of her successes of the past
half-year; but Walter said 'Astley' was rather too common,
and could we think of a better one? I didn't mind, only said
I should like to keep 'Nan' -since Kitty herself had rechristened me that; and we took our lunch, in consequence,
with everybody volunteering names they thought would
match it. Tootsie said 'Nan Love', Sims 'Nan Sergeant'.
Percy said, 'Nan Scarlet - no, Nan Silver - no, Nan Gold ..."
Every name seemed to offer me some new and marvellous
version of myself; it was like standing at the costumier's rail
and shrugging on the jackets.
None, however, seemed to fit - till the Professor tapped the
table, cleared his throat, and said: 'Nan King'. And although
I should like to be able to say - as other artistes do - that
there was some terribly clever or romantic story behind the
choosing of my stage-name - that we had opened a special
book at a certain place, and found it there; that I had heard
the word 'King' said in a dream, and quivered at it - I can
give no better account of the matter than the truth: which
was only that we needed a name, and the Professor said
'Nan King', and I liked it.
It was as 'Kitty Butler and Nan King', therefore, that we
returned to Camberwell that evening - to renew, and
improve upon our success of the night before. It was 'Kitty
Butler and Nan King' that appeared on the posters; and
'Kitty Butler and Nan King' that began to rise, rather
steadily, from middle-billing, to second-billing, to top-ofthe-list. Not just at the Camberwell hall but, over the next
few months, at all the lesser London halls and - slowly,
slowly - some of the West End ones, too . . .
I cannot say what it was that made the crowds like Kitty
and me together, more than they had liked Kitty Butler on
her own. It may just have been, as Walter had foreseen, that
we were novel: for though in later years we were rather
freely imitated, there was certainly no other act like ours in
the London halls in 1889. It may also have been - again, as
Walter had predicted - that the sight of a pair of girls in
gentlemen's suits was somehow more charming, more
thrilling, more indefinably saucy, than that of a single girl
in trousers and topper and spats. We did, I know, go
handsomely together - Kitty with her nut-brown crop, me
with my head blonde and smooth and gleaming; she raised
a little on her one-inch slippers, me in my flat effeminate
shoes, my cleverly tailored suits that masked the slender
angularity of my frame with girlish curves.
Whatever it was that made the change, however, it worked,
and worked extraordinarily. We became not just rather
popular, as Kitty had been, but really famous. Our wages
rose; we worked three halls a night - four, sometimes - and
now, when our brougham was caught in traffic, our driver
would yell, 'I've got Kitty Butler and Nan King in here, due
at the Royal, Holborn, in fifteen minutes! Clear a way there,
can't you?' -and the other drivers would shift a little to let us
through, and smile and raise their hats to the windows as
we passed! Now there were flowers for me, as well as for
Kitty; now I received invitations to dinner, and requests and
autographs, and letters ...
It took me weeks to understand that it was really happening,
and to me; weeks to let myself believe in it, and to trust the
crowd that liked me. But when at last I learned to love my
new life, I loved it fiercely. The pleasures of success, I
suppose, are rather easy to understand; it was my new
capacity for pleasure — for pleasure in performance,
display and disguise, in the wearing of handsome suits, the
singing of ribald songs -that shocked and thrilled me most. I
had been content till now to stand in the wings, looking on
while Kitty dallied, in the lime-light, with the vast,
rumbustious crowd. Now, suddenly, it was I who wooed it,
me at whom it gazed in envy and delight. I could not help
it: I had fallen in love with Kitty; now, becoming Kitty, I
fell in love a little with myself. I admired my hair, so neat
and so sleek. I adored my legs - my legs which, while they
had had skirts about them, I had scarcely had a thought for;
but which were, I discovered, rather long and lean and
I sound vain. I was not - then - and could never have been,
while Kitty existed as the wider object of my self-love. The
act, I knew, was still all hers. When we sang, it was really
she who sang, while I provided a light, easy second. When
we danced, it was she who did the tricky steps: I only
strolled or shuffled at her side. I was her foil, her echo; I
was the shadow which, in all her brilliance, she cast across
the stage. But, like a shadow, I lent her the edge, the depth,
the crucial definition, that she had lacked before.
It was very far from vanity, then, my satisfaction. It was
only love; and the better the act became, I thought, the more
perfect that love grew. After all, the two things - the act, our
love -were not so very different. They had been born
together - or, as I liked to think, the one had been born of
the other, and was merely its public shape. When Kitty and
I had first become sweethearts, I had made her a promise. 'I
will be careful,' I had said - and I had said it very lightly,
because I thought it would be easy. I had kept my promise:
I never kissed her, touched her, said a loving thing, when
there was anyone to glimpse or overhear us. But it was not
easy, nor did it become easier as the months passed by; it
became only a dreary kind of habit. How could it be easy to
stand cool and distant from her in the day, when we had
spent all night with our naked limbs pressed hot and close
together? How could it be easy to veil my glances when
others watched, bite my tongue because others listened,
when I passed all our private hours gazing at her till my
eyes ached of it, calling her every kind of sweet name until
my throat was dry? Sitting beside her at supper at Mrs
Dendy's, standing near her in the green-room of a theatre,
walking with her through the city streets, I felt as though I
was bound and fettered with iron bands, chained and
muzzled and blinkered. Kitty had given me leave to love
her; the world, she said, would never let me be anything to
her except her friend.
Her friend - and her partner on the stage. You will not
believe me, but making love to Kitty - a thing done in
passion, but always, too, in shadow and in silence, and with
an ear half-cocked for the sound of footsteps on the stairs making love to Kitty, and posing at her side in a shaft of
limelight, before a thousand pairs of eyes, to a script I knew
by heart, in an attitude I had laboured for hours to perfect -
these things were not so very different. A double act is
always twice the act the audience thinks it: beyond our
songs, our steps, our bits of business with coins and canes
and flowers, there was a private language, in which we held
an endless, delicate exchange of which the crowd knew
nothing. This was a language not of the tongue but of the
body, its vocabulary the pressure of a finger or a palm, the
nudging of a hip, the holding or breaking of a gaze, that
said, You are too slow - you go too fast - not there, but here
— that's good - that's better! It was as if we walked before
the crimson curtain, lay down upon the boards, and kissed
and fondled - and were clapped, and cheered, and paid for
it! As Kitty had said, when I had whispered that wearing
trousers upon the stage would only make me want to kiss
her: 'What a show that would be!' But, that was our show;
only the crowd never knew it. They looked on, and saw
another turn entirely.
Well, perhaps there were some who caught glimpses . . .
I have spoken of my admirers. They were girls, for most
part- jolly, careless girls, who gathered at the stage door,
and begged for photographs, and autographs, and gave us
flowers. But for every ten or twenty of such girls, there
would be one or two more desperate and more pushing, or
more shy and awkward, than the rest; and in them I
recognised a certain -something. I could not put a name to
it, only knew that it was there, and that it made their interest
in me rather special. These girls sent letters - letters, like
their stage door manners, full of curious excesses or
ellipses; letters that awed, repelled and drew me, all at once.
'I hope you will forgive my writing to say that you are very
handsome,' wrote one girl; another wrote: 'Miss King, I am
in love with you!' Someone named Ada King wrote to ask if
we were cousins. She said: 'I do so admire you and Miss
Butler, but especially you. Could you I wonder send a
photograph? I would like to have a picture of you, beside
my bed ..." The card I sent her was a favourite of mine, a
picture of Kitty and me in Oxford bags and boaters, in
which Kitty stood with her hands in her pockets and I
leaned with my arm through hers, a cigarette between my
fingers. I signed it 'To Ada, from one "King" to another";
and it was very odd to think that it would be pinned to a
wall, or put in a frame, so that unknown girl might gaze at it
while she fastened her frock or lay dreaming.
Then there were other requests, for odder things. Would I
send a collar-stud, a button from my suit, a curl of hair?
Would I, on Thursday night - or Friday night - wear a
scarlet necktie - or a green neck-tie, or a yellow rose in my
lapel; would I make a special sign, or dance a special step?
- for then the writer would see, and know that I had
received her note.
'Throw them away,' Kitty would say when I showed her
these letters. 'They're cracked, those girls, and you mustn't
encourage them.' But I knew that the girls were not cracked,
as she said; they were only as I had been, a year before - but
braver or more reckless. That, in itself, impressed me; what
astonished and thrilled me now was the thought that girls
might look at me at all - the thought that in every darkened
hall there might be one or two female hearts that beat
exclusively for me, one or two pairs of eyes that lingered,
perhaps immodestly, over my face and figure and suit. Did
they know why they looked? Did they know what they
looked for? Above all, when they saw me stride across the
stage in trousers, singing of girls whose eyes I had sent
winking, whose hearts I had broken, what did they see? Did
they see that - something -that I saw in them?
'They had better not!' said Kitty, when I put my idea to her;
and though she laughed as she said it, the laughter was a
little strained. She didn't like to talk about such things.
She didn't like it, either, when one night in the change-room
of a theatre we met a pair of women - a comic singer and
her dresser - who, I thought, were rather like ourselves. The
singer was flashy, and had a frock with spangles on it that
must be fastened very tightly over her stays. Her maid was
an older woman in a plain brown dress; I saw her tugging at
the frock, and thought nothing of it. But when she had the
hooks fastened tight, she leaned and gently blew upon the
singer's throat, where the power had clogged; and then she
whispered something to her, and they laughed together with
their heads very close . . . and I knew, as surely as if they
had pasted the words upon the dressing-room wall, that
they were lovers.
The knowledge made me blush like a beacon. I looked at
Kitty, and saw that she had caught the gesture, too; her
eyes, however, were lowered, and her mouth was tight.
When the comic singer passed us on her way to the stage,
she gave me a wink: 'Off to please the public,' she said, and
her dresser laughed again. When she came back and took
her make-up off, she wandered over with a cigarette and
asked for a light; then, as she drew on her fag, she looked
me over. 'Are you going,' she said, 'to Barbara's party, after
the show?' I said I didn't know who Barbara was. She
waved her hand: 'Oh, Barbara won't mind. You come along
with Ella and me: you and your friend.' Here she nodded -
very pleasantly, I thought - to Kitty. But Kitty, who had had
her head bent all this time, working at the fastenings of her
skirt, now looked up and gave a prim little smile.
'How nice of you to ask,' she said; 'but we are spoken for
tonight. Our agent, Mr Bliss, is due to take us out to
I stared: we had no arrangement that I knew of. But the
singer only gave a shrug. 'Too bad,' she said. Then she
looked at me. 'You don't want to leave your pal to her
agent, and come on alone, with me and Ella?'
'Miss King will be busy with Mr Bliss,' said Kitty, before I
could answer; and she said it so tightly the singer gave a
sniff, then turned and went over to where her dresser waited
with their baskets. I watched them leave - they didn't look
back at me. When we returned to the theatre the next night,
Kitty chose a hook that was far from theirs; and on the
night after that, they had moved on to another hall. . .
At home, in bed, I said I thought it was a shame.
'Why did you tell them Walter was coming?' I asked Kitty.
She said: 'I didn't care for them.'
'Why not? They were nice. They were funny. They were like us.'
I had my arm about her, and felt her stiffen at my words.
She pulled away from me and raised her head. We had left
a candle burning and her face, I saw, was white and
'Nan!' she said. They're not like us! They're not like us, at
all. They're toms.'
Toms?' I remember this moment very distinctly, for I had
never heard the word before. Later I would think it
marvellous that there had ever been a time I hadn't known
Now, when Kitty said it, she flinched. Toms. They make a a career- out of kissing girls. We're not like that!'
'Aren't we?' I said. 'Oh, if someone would only pay me for
it, I'd be very glad to make a career out of kissing you. Do
you think there is someone who would pay me for that? I'd
give up the stage in a flash.' I tried to pull her to me again,
but she knocked my hand away.
'You would have to give up the stage,' she said seriously,
'and so would I, if there was talk about us, if people thought
we were — like that.'
But what were we like? I still didn't know. When I pressed
her, however, she grew fretful.
'We're not like anything! We're just - ourselves.'
'But if we're just ourselves, why do we have to hide it?'
'Because no one would know the difference between us and
- women like that!'
I laughed. 'Is there a difference?' I asked again.
She continued grave and cross. 'I have told you,' she said.
'You don't understand. You don't know what's wrong or
right, or good . . .'
'I know that this ain't wrong, what we do. Only that the
world says it is.'
She shook her head. 'It's the same thing,' she said. Then she
fell back upon her pillow and closed her eyes, and turned
her face away.
I was sorry that I had teased her - but also, I am ashamed to
say, rather warmed by her distress. I touched her cheek, and
moved a little closer to her; then I took my hand from her
face and passed it, hesitantly, down her night-dress, over
her breasts and belly. She moved away, and I slowed - but
did not stop - my searching fingers; and soon, as if despite
itself, I felt her body slacken in assent. I moved lower, and
seized the hem of her shift and drew it high - then did the
same with my own, and gently slid my hips over hers. We
fitted together like the two halves of an oyster-shell - you
couldn't have passed so much as the blade of a knife
between us. I said, 'Oh Kitty, how can this be wrong?' But
she did not answer, only moved her lips to mine at last, and
when I felt the tug of her kiss I let my weight fall heavily
upon her, and gave a sigh.
I might have been Narcissus, embracing the pond in which I
was about to drown.
It was true, I suppose, what she said - that I didn't
understand her. Always, always, it came down to the same
thing: that however much we had to hide our love, however
guardedly we had to take our pleasure, I could not long be
miserable about a thing that was - as she herself admitted so very sweet. Nor, in my gladness, could I quite believe
that anyone who cared for me would be anything but happy
for me, if only they knew.
I was, as I have said before, very young. The next day,
while Kitty still slept, I rose and made my noiseless way
into our parlour. There I did something that I had longed for
months to do, but never had the courage. I took a piece of
paper and a pen, and wrote a letter to my sister, Alice.
I hadn't written home in weeks. I had told them, once, that I
had joined the act; but I had rather played the matter down I feared they wouldn't think the life a decent one for their
own daughter. They had sent me back a brief, half-hearted,
puzzled note; they had talked of travelling to London, to
reassure themselves that I was quite content - and at that I
had written at once to say, they must not think of coming, I
was too busy, my rooms were too small... In short - so
'careful' had Kitty made me! -I was as unwelcoming as it
was possible to be, this side of friendliness. Since then, our
letters had grown rarer than ever; and the business of my
fame upon the stage had been quite lost -I never mentioned
it; they did not ask.
Now, it was not of the act that I wrote to Alice. I wrote to
tell her what had happened between Kitty and me - to tell
her that we loved each other, not as friends, but as
sweethearts; that we had made our lives together; and that
she must be glad for me, for I was happier than I had ever
thought it possible to be.
It was a long letter, but I wrote it easily; and when I had
finished it I felt light as air. I didn't read it through, but put
it in an envelope at once, and ran with it to the post-box. I
was back before Kitty had even stirred; and when she woke
I didn't mention it.
I didn't tell her about Alice's reply, either. This came a few
days later - came while Kitty and I were at breakfast, and
had to stay unopened in my pocket until I could make time
to be alone and read it. It was, I saw at once, very neat; and
knowing Alice to be no great pen woman, I guessed that
this must be the last of several versions.
It was also, unlike my letter, very short - so short that, to
my great dismay and all unwillingly, I find that I remember
it, even now, in its entirety.
'Dear Nancy,' it began.
'Your letter was both a shock to me and no surprise at all,
for I have been expecting to receive something very like it
from you, since the day you left us. When I first read it I
did not now whether to weep or throw the paper away from
me in temper. In the end I burned the thing, and only hope
you will have sense enough to burn this one, likewise.
'You ask me to be happy on your behalf. Nance, you must
know that I have always only ever had your happiness at
my heart, more nearly even than my own. But you must
know too that I can never be happy while your friendship
with that woman is so wrong and queer. I can never like
what you have told me. You think you are happy, but you
are only misled -and that woman, your friend "so-called", is
to blame for it.
'I only wish that you had never met her nor ever gone away,
but only stayed in Whitstable where you belong, and with
those who love you properly.
'Let me just say at the last what you must I hope know.
Father, Mother and Davy know nothing of this, and won't
from my lips, since I would rather die of shame than tell
them. You must never speak of it to them, unless you want
to finish the job you started when you first left us, and
break their hearts completely and for ever.
'Don't burden me, I ask you, with no more shameful secrets.
But look to yourself and the path that you are treading, and
ask yourself if it is really Right.
She must have kept her word about not telling our parents,
for their letters to me continued as before - still cautious,
still rather fretful, but still kind. But now I got even less
pleasure from them; only kept thinking, What would they
write, if they knew? How kind would they be then? My
replies, in consequence, grew shorter and rarer than ever.
As for Alice: after that one brief, bitter epistle, she never
wrote to me at all.
Chapter 6
The months, that year, seemed to slide by very swiftly; for,
of course, we were busier now than ever. We continued to
work our hit - the song about the sovereigns and the winks all through the spring and summer, but there were always
new songs, new routines to labour over and perfect, new
orchestras to grow familiar with, new theatres, and new
costumes. Of the latter, we acquired so many that we found
we couldn't manage them without help, and took on a girl to
do my old job - to mend the suits and to help us dress in
them, at the side of the stage.
We grew rich - or rich, at least, as far as I was concerned.
At the Star, in Bermondsey, Kitty had started on a couple of
pounds a week, and I had thought my own, small dresser's
share of that quite grand enough. Now I earned ten, twenty,
thirty times that figure, on my own account, and sometimes
more. The sums seemed unimaginable to me: I preferred,
perhaps foolishly, not to think of them at all, but let Walter
worry over our wages. He, in response to our great
successes, had found new agents for his other artistes and
was now our manager full-time. He negotiated our
contracts, our publicity, and held our money for us; he paid
Kitty and she, as before, gave me whatever little cash I
needed, when I asked her for it.
It was rather strange with Walter, now that Kitty and I had
grown so close. We saw him quite as often as we had
before; we still went driving with him; we still spent long
hours with him at Mrs Dendy's piano (though the piano
itself had been changed, to a more expensive one). He was
as kind and as foolish as ever - but a little dimmed,
somehow, a little shadowy, now that the blaze of Kitty's
charms was more decidedly turned my way. Perhaps it only
seemed so to me; but I was sorry for him, and could not
help but wonder what he thought. I was sure he hadn't
guessed that Kitty and I were sweethearts — for, of course,
we were rather cool ourselves, in public, now.
As rich as we became that year, we were never quite rich
enough to be so very choosy about the kind of halls we
sang in. For the whole of September we played at the
Trocadero - a very smart theatre, and one of the ones that
Walter had pointed out to us on our first, giddy tour of the
West End, more than a year before. When we left the Troc,
however, it was to drive to Deacon's Music Hall, in
Islington. This was an altogether different place: small and
old, with an audience drawn from the streets and courts of
Clerkenwell - and inclined, in consequence, to be rather
We didn't mind a rowdy crowd, as a rule, for it could be
unnerving to work the prim West End theatres, where the
ladies were too gentle or well-dressed to bang their hands
together or to stamp, and where only the drunken swells of
the promenade really whistled and shouted as a proper
music-hall audience should. We had never worked
Deacon's before, but we had once done a week at Sam
Collins', up the road. There the crowd had been humble and
gay - working-people, women with babies in their arms the kind of audience I liked best of all, because it was the
kind of which, until very recently, I had myself been a
The Deacon's crowd were noticeably shabbier than the folk
at Islington Green, but no less kind; if anything, indeed,
they were inclined to be kinder, jollier, more willing to be
moved and thrilled and entertained. Our first week there
went well -they packed the hall for us. It was on the
Saturday night of the second week that the trouble came on a Saturday night at the end of September, a night of fog one of those grey-brown evenings, when all the streets and
buildings of the city seem to waver a little at the edges.
The roads are always choked on such a night, and on this
particular evening the traffic between Windmill Street and
Islington was horribly slow, for there had been an accident
along the way. A van had overturned; a dozen boys had
rushed to sit upon the horse's head, to stop the beast from
rising; and our own carriage could not pass for half an hour
or more. We arrived at Deacon's terribly late, to find the
place as wild as the street we had just left. The crowd had
had to wait for us, and were impatient. Some poor artiste
had been sent on to sing a comic song and keep them
occupied, but they had started to heckle him quite
mercilessly; at last - the fellow had begun a clog dance two roughs had jumped upon the stage and pulled the boots
from him, and tossed them up to the gallery. When we
arrived, breathless and flustered but ready to sing, the air
was thick with shouts and bellows and screams of laughter.
The two roughs had hold of the comic singer by the ankles,
and were holding him so that his head dangled over the
flames of the footlights, in an attempt to set fire to his hair.
The conductor and a couple of stage-hands had hold of the
roughs, and were trying to pull them into the wings.
Another stage-hand stood nearby, dazed, and with a
bleeding nose.
We had Walter with us, for we had arranged to eat with him
later, after the show. Now he looked at the scene before us,
'My God,5 he said. 'You cannot go on with them in such a
mood as this.'
As he spoke, the manager came running. 'Not go on?' he
said, appalled. 'They must go on, or there will be a riot. It is
entirely because they did not go on when they were meant
to that the damn trouble - excuse me, ladies - started.' He
wiped his forehead, which was very damp. From the stage,
however, there were signs that the scuffling, at last, was
Kitty looked at me, then nodded. 'He's right,' she said to
Walter. Then, to the manager: Tell them to put our number
The manager pocketed his handkerchief and stepped
smartly away before she could change her mind; but Walter
still looked grave. 'Are you sure?' he asked us. He glanced
back towards the stage. The roughs had been successfully
carried off, and the singer had been placed in a chair in the
wing across from us and given a glass of water. His clogs
must have been thrown back on to the stage, or else some
kind soul had delivered or retrieved them; at any rate, they
now stood rather neatly beneath his chair and beside his
bruised and naked feet. There were still some shrieks and
whistles, however, from the hall.
'You don't have to do it,' Walter went on. 'They may hurl
something; you might get hurt.'
Kitty straightened her collar. As she did so we heard the
great roar, and the thunder of stamping feet, that told us that
our number had gone up. In a second, rising doggedly over
the din, there came the first few bars of our opening song.
'If they hurl something,' she said quickly, 'we'll duck.' Then
she took a step, and nodded for me to follow.
And after all the fuss, indeed, they received us very
'Wot cheer, Kitty?' someone shouted, as we danced our way
into the beam of the limes. 'Did you lose your way in the
fog, then, or what?'
'Shocking awful traffic,' she called back - the first verse was
about to begin, and she was slipping further into character
with every step she took - 'but not so bad as a road my
friend and I were a-walking on the other afternoon. Why, it
took us quite half a day to get from Pall Mall to Piccadilly
..." And effortlessly, seamlessly - and with me beside her,
closer and more faithful than a shadow - she led us into our
When that was over we headed back into the wing, to
where Flora, our dresser, waited with our suits. Walter kept
his distance, but clasped his hands together before his chest
when we emerged, and shook them, in a gesture of triumph.
He was pink-faced and smiling with relief.
Our second number - a song called 'Scarlet Fever', for
which we dressed in guardsmen's uniforms (red jackets and
caps, white belts, black trousers, very smart) - went down a
treat; it was during the next routine that all turned sour.
There was a man in the stalls: I had noticed him earlier, for
he was large, and clearly very drunk; he slept noisily in his
seat, with his knees spread wide, his mouth open and his
chin glistening slightly in the glow from the stage. For all I
know, he might have slept through all the rumpus with the
clog-dancer; now, however, by some horrible mischance,
he had woken up. It was a very small theatre and I could
see him quite distinctly. He had stumbled over his
neighbours' legs to get to the end of his row, swearing all
the way, and drawing answering curses from everyone he
stepped on. He had reached the aisle at last -but there he
had grown confused. Instead of heading for the bar, the
privy, or wherever it was that he had made up his gin-or
whisky- soaked mind to make for, he had wandered down
to the side of the stage. Now he stood, peering up at us,
with his hands over his eyes.
'What the devil - ?' he said; he said it during a lull between
verses, and it sounded very loud. A few people turned away
from us to look at him, and to titter or tut-tut.
I exchanged a glance with Kitty, but kept my voice and
steps in time with hers, my eyes still bright, my smile still
broad. After a second the man began to curse even louder.
The crowd - who were still, I suppose, rather ready for a bit
of sport - began to shout at him, to quieten him down.
'Throw the old josser out!' called someone; and, 'Don't you
pay no mind to him, Nan, dear!' This was from a woman in
the stalls. I caught her eye, and tipped my hat - it was a
boater; we were wearing the Oxford bags and boaters, now
- and saw her blush.
All the shouting, however, only seemed to enrage and
confuse the man still further. A boy stepped up to him, but
was knocked away; I saw the fellows in the orchestra begin
to gaze a little wildly over the tops of their instruments. At
the back of the hall two door-men had been summoned and
were squinting into the gloom. Half a dozen hands waved
and pointed to where the man leaned over the footlights, his
whiskers fluttering in the heat.
He, now, had started banging on the stage with the heel of
his hand. I suppressed an urge to dance up to him and stamp
upon his wrist (for, apart from anything else, I thought he
was quite capable of seizing my ankle and dragging me into
the stalls.) Instead, I took my cue from Kitty. She had hold
of my arm, and had pressed it, but her brow was smooth
and untroubled. At any moment, I thought, she would slow
the song, launch into the man, or call for the door-men to
come and remove him.
But they, at last, had spotted him, and had begun their
advance. He, all unknowing, ranted drunkenly on.
'Call that a song?' he shouted. 'Call that a song? I want my
shilling back! You hear me? I want my bleeding shilling
'You want your bleeding arse kicked, is what you want!'
answered someone from the pit. Then someone else, a
woman, yelled, 'Stop your row, can't you? We can't hear the
girls for all your racket.'
The man gave a sneer; then he hawked, and spat. 'Girls?' he
cried. 'Girls? You call them girls? Why, they're nothing but
a couple of- a couple of tomsl'
He put the whole force of his voice into it - the word that
Kitty had once whispered to me, flinching and shuddering
as she said it! It sounded louder at that moment than the
blast of a cornet - seemed to bounce from one wall of the
hall to another, like a bullet from a sharp-shooter's act gone
At the sound of it, the audience gave a great collective
flinch. There was a sudden hush; the shouts became
mumbles, the shrieks all tailed away. Through the shaft of
limelight I saw their faces - a thousand faces, self-conscious
and appalled.
Even so, the awkwardness might have lasted no longer than
a moment; they might have forgotten it at once, and grown
noisy and gay again - but for what happened, simultaneous
with their silencing, upon the stage.
For Kitty had stiffened; and then she had stumbled. We had
been dancing with our arms linked. Now her mouth flew
open. Now it shut. Now it trembled. Her voice - her lovely,
shining, soaring voice - faltered and died. I had never
known it happen before. I had seen her sail, quite at her
ease, through seas of indifference, squalls of heckling.
Now, upon that single, dreadful, drunken cry, she had
I, of course, should have sung all the louder, swept her
across the stage, jollied the audience along; but I, of course,
was only her shadow. Her sudden silence stopped my
throat, and stunned me into immobility, too. I looked from
her to the orchestra pit. There, the conductor had seen our
confusion. The music had slowed and faded for a second but now picked up, more briskly than before.
But the melody affected neither Kitty nor the audience. At
the side of the stalls, the door-men had reached the drunken
man at last, and had hold of his collar. The crowd looked
not at him, however, but at us. They looked at us, and saw what? Two girls in suits, their hair close-clipped, their arms
entwined. Toms! For all the efforts of the orchestra, the
man's cry still seemed to echo about the hall.
Far off in the gallery someone called something that I could
not catch, and there was an awkward answering laugh.
If the shout cast a spell over the theatre, the laughter broke
it. Kitty shifted, then seemed to see for the first time that
our arms were joined. She gave a cry, and drew away from
me as if in horror. Then she put her hand to her eyes and
stepped, with her head bowed, into the wing.
For a second I stood, dazed and confounded; then I hurried
after her. The orchestra rattled on. There were shouts from
the hall, at last, and cries of 'Shame!' The curtain, I think,
was rung hurriedly down.
Back stage, everything was in a state of the greatest
confusion. Kitty had run to Walter: he had his arm about
her shoulders and looked grave. Flora stood by with a shoe
unlaced and ready, shocked and uncertain but desperately
curious. A knot of stage-hands and fly-men looked on,
whispering amongst themselves. I stepped up to Kitty and
reached for her arm; she flinched as if I had raised my hand
to strike her, and instantly I fell back. As I did so the
manager appeared, more flustered than ever.
'I should like to know, Miss Butler, Miss King, what the
blazes you mean by -'
'I should like to know,' interrupted Walter harshly, 'what the
blazes you mean by sending my artistes on before that
rabble you call your audience. I should like to know why a
drunken fool is allowed to interfere with Miss Butler's
performance for ten minutes, while your men gather their
scattered wits together, and make up their minds to remove
The manager stamped his foot: 'How dare you, sir!'
'How dare you, sir -!'
The debate went on. I didn't listen to it, only looked at
Kitty. Her eyes were dry, but she was white-faced and stiff.
She hadn't taken her head from Walter's shoulder, and she
had not glanced towards me, at all.
Finally Walter gave a snort, and waved the blustering
manager away. He turned to me. He said, 'Nan, I am taking
Kitty home, at once. There's no question now of you going
on for your final number; I'm afraid, too, that we must
forfeit our supper. I shall hail us a hansom; will you follow
with Flora and the gear, in the carriage? I should like to get
Kitty back to Ginevra Road as swiftly as possible.' I
hesitated, then looked at Kitty again. She raised her eyes to
mine at last, very briefly, and nodded.
'All right,' I said. I watched them leave. Walter took up his
cloak, and - though it was far too large for her, and trailed
upon the dusty floor - he placed it over Kitty's slender
shoulders. She clasped it tight at the throat, then let him
usher her away, past the angry manager and the knot of
whispering boys.
By the time I reached Ginevra Road - after having gathered
our boxes and bags together at Deacon's, and delivered
Flora to her own house in Lambeth - Walter had gone, our
rooms were dark, and Kitty was in bed, apparently asleep. I
bent over her, and stroked her head. She did not stir, and I
didn't like to wake her to perhaps more upset. Instead, I
simply undressed, and lay close beside her, and placed my
hand upon her heart -which beat on, very fiercely, through
her dreams.
The disastrous night at Deacon's brought changes with it,
and made some things a little strange. We did not sing at
the hall again, but broke our contract - losing money on the
deal. Kitty became choosier about the theatres we worked
at; she began to question Walter, too, about the other acts
that we must share the bills with. Once he booked us to
appear alongside an American artist - a man called 'Paul or
Pauline?', whose turn was to dance in and out of an ebony
cabinet, dressed now as a woman, now as a man, and
singing soprano and baritone by turns. I thought the act was
a good one; but when Kitty saw him work, she made us
cancel. She said the man was a freak, and would make us
seem freakish by association . . .
We lost money on that deal, too. In the end I marvelled at
Walter's patience.
For that was another change. I have spoken of the curious
dimming of Walter's brightness, of the subtle new distance
that had grown between us, since Kitty and I had become
sweethearts. Now the dimming and the distance increased.
He remained kind, but his kindness was tempered by a
surprising kind of stiffness; in Kitty's presence, in
particular, he grew easily flustered and self-conscious - and
then jolly, with a horrible, forced kind of jolliness, as if
ashamed of himself for being so awkward. His visits to
Ginevra Road grew rarer. At last we saw him only to
rehearse new songs, or in the company of the other artistes
we sometimes took supper or drinks with.
I missed him, and wondered at his change of heart - but
didn't wonder very hard, I must confess, because I thought I
knew what had caused it. That night at Islington he had
learned the truth at last - had heard that drunken man's
shout, seen Kitty's terrible, terrified response, and
understood. He had driven her home - I did not know what
had passed between them then, for neither of them seemed
at all inclined to discuss any part of that dreadful evening he had driven her home, but that tender gesture of his, to
place his cloak about her trembling shoulders and see her
safely to her door, had been his last. Now he could not be
easy with her - perhaps because he knew for sure that he
had lost her; more probably, because the idea of our love he
found distasteful. And so he stayed away.
Had we remained very long at Mrs Dendy's house, I think
our friends there would have noticed Walter's absence, and
quizzed us over it; but at the end of September came the
biggest change of all. We said good-bye to our landlady and
Ginevra Road, and moved.
We had talked vaguely of moving since the start of our
fame; but we had always put the crucial moment off - it
seemed foolish to leave a place in which we had been, and
were still, so happy. Mrs Dendy's had become our home. It
was the house in which we had first kissed, first declared
our love; it was, I thought, our honeymoon house - and for
all that it was so cramped and plain, for all that our
costumes now took up more space in the bedroom than our
bed, I was terribly loath to leave it.
But Kitty said it looked queer, us still sharing a room, and a
bed, when we had the money to live somewhere ten times
the size; and she had a house agent look about for rooms for
us, somewhere more seemly.
It was to Stamford Hill that we moved, in the end Stamford Hill, far across the river, in a bit of London I
hardly knew (and thought, privately, a little dull). We had a
farewell supper at Ginevra Road, with everyone saying how
sorry they were to see us go - Mrs Dendy herself even wept
a little, and said her house would never be the same. For
Tootsie was also leaving - leaving for France, for a part in a
Parisian revue; and her room was being taken by a
comedian who whistled. The Professor had developed the
beginnings of a palsy - there was talk that he might end up
in a home for old artistes. Sims and Percy were doing well,
and planned to take our rooms when we had left them; but
Percy had found a sweetheart, too, and the girl made
quarrels between them -I learned later that they split the act,
and found spots as minstrels in rival troupes. It's the way of
theatrical houses, I suppose, to break up and refashion
themselves; but I was almost sadder, on my last day at
Ginevra Road, than I had been on leaving Whitstable. I sat
in the parlour - my portrait was upon the wall, now, along
with all the others - and thought how much had changed
since I had sat there first, a little less than thirteen months
before; and for a moment I wondered if all the changes had
been good ones, and wished that I could be plain Nancy
Astley again, whom Kitty Butler loved with an ordinary
love she was not afraid to show to all the world.
The street to which we moved was very new, and very
quiet. Our neighbours, I think, were city men; their wives
stayed at home all day, and their children had nurses, who
wheeled them, puffing, up and down the garden steps in
great iron perambulators. We had the top two floors of a
house close to the station; our landlady and her husband
lived beneath us, but they were not connected to the
business, and we rarely saw them. Our rooms were smart,
we were the first to rent them: the furniture was all of
polished wood, and velvet and brocade, and was far finer
than anything either of us was used to -so that we sat upon
the chairs and sofas rather gingerly. There were three
bedrooms, and one of them was mine - which meant only,
of course, that I kept my dresses in its closet, my brushes
and combs upon its wash-hand stand, and my nightgown
beneath the pillow of its bed-this was for the sake of the girl
who came to clean for us, three days a week. My nights
were really spent in Kitty's chamber, the great front
bedroom with its great high bed that the house-builders had
meant for a husband and wife. It made me smile to lie in it.
'We are married,' I would say to Kitty. 'Why, we don't have
to lie here at all, if we don't wish to! I could carry you down
to the parlour carpet, and kiss you there!' But I never did.
For though we were at liberty at last to be as saucy and as
clamorous as we chose, we found we couldn't break
ourselves of our old habits: we still whispered our love, and
kissed beneath the counterpane, noiselessly, like mice.
That, of course, was when we had time for kisses. We were
working six nights a week now, and there was no Sims and
Percy and Tootsie to keep us lively after shows; often we
would arrive back at Stamford Hill so weary we would
simply fall into the bed and snore. By November we were
both so tired Walter said we must take a holiday. There was
talk of a trip to the Continent - even, to America, where
there were also halls at which we might build up a quiet
reputation, and where Walter had friends who would lodge
us. But then, before the trip could be fixed, there came an
invitation to play in pantomime, at the Britannia Theatre,
Hoxton. The pantomime was Cinderella, and Kitty and I
were wanted for the First and Second Boy roles; and the
offer was too flattering to resist.
My music-hall career, though brief enough, had been a
happy one; but I do not think that I was ever so content as I
was that winter, playing Dandini to Kitty's Prince, at the
Britannia. Any artiste will tell you that it is their ambition
to work in pantomime; it is not until you play in one
yourself, however, at a theatre as grand and as famous as
the Brit, that you understand why. For the three coldest
months of the year you are settled. There is no dashing
about from hall to hall, no worrying about contracts. You
mix with actors and ballet-girls, and make friends with
them. Your dressing-room is large and private and warm for you are really expected to change and make-up in it, not
arrive, breathless, at the stage door, having buttoned on
your costume in your brougham. You are handed lines to
speak, and you speak them, steps to take, and you take
them, costumes to wear - the most wonderful costumes you
ever saw in your life, costumes of fur and satin and velvet and you wear them, then pass them back to the wardrobemistress and let her worry about mending them and keeping
them neat. The crowds you have to play before are the
kindest, gayest crowds there ever were: you will hurl all
manner of nonsense at them and they will shriek with
laughter, merely because it is Christmas and they are
determined to be jolly. It is like a holiday from real life except that you are paid twenty pounds a week, if you are
as lucky as we were then, to enjoy it.
The Cinderella in which we played that year was a
particularly splendid one. The title role was taken by Dolly
Arnold -a lovely girl with a voice like a linnet's, and a waist
so slim her trademark was to wear a necklace as a belt. It
was rather odd to see Kitty spooning with her upon the
stage, kissing her while the clock showed a minute-tomidnight - though it was odder still, perhaps, to think that
no one in the audience called out Toms! now, or even
appeared to think it: they only cheered when the Prince and
Cinderella were united at the end, and drawn on stage, by
half-a-dozen pygmy horses, in their wedding-car.
Aside from Dolly Arnold, there were other stars - artistes
whose turns I had once paid to watch and clap at, at the
Canterbury Palace of Varieties. It made me feel very green,
to have to work with them and talk to them as equals. I had
only ever sung and danced, before, at Kitty's side; now, of
course, I had to act — to walk on stage with a hunting
retinue and say, 'My lords, where is Prince Casimir, our
master?'; to slap my thigh and make terrible puns; to kneel
before Cinderella with a velvet cushion, and place the
slipper of glass upon her tiny foot — then lead the crowd in
three rousing cheers when it was found to fit it. If you have
ever seen a panto at the Brit, you will know how
marvellous they are. For the transformation scene of
Cinderella they dressed one hundred girls in suits of gauze
and bullion fringe, then harnessed them to moving wires
and had them swoop above the stalls. On the stage they set
up fountains, which they lit, each with a different coloured
lime. Dolly, as Cinderella in her wedding-gown, wore a
frock of gold, with glitter on the bodice. Kitty had golden
pantaloons, a shining waistcoat, and a three-cornered hat,
and I wore breeches and a vest of velvet, and square-toed
shoes with silver buckles. Standing at Kitty's side while the
fountains played, the fairies swooped, and the pigmy horses
pranced and trotted, I was never sure I had not died on my
way to the theatre and woken up in paradise. There is a
particular scent that ponies give off, when they are set too
long beneath a too-hot lamp. I smelled it every night at the
Brit, mingled with that familiar music-hall reek of dust and
grease-paint, tobacco and beer. Even now, if you were to
ask me, quickly, 'What is heaven like?' I should have to say
that it must smell of over-heated horsehair, and be filled
with angels in spangles and gauze, and decorated with
fountains of scarlet and blue . . .
But not, perhaps, have Kitty in it.
I did not think this then, of course. I was only
extraordinarily glad to have a place in such a business, and
with my true love at my side; and everything that Kitty said
or did only seemed to show that she felt just the same. I
believe we spent more hours at the Brit that winter than at
our new home in Stamford Hill — more time in velvet suits
and powdered wigs than out of them. We made friends with
all the theatre people - with the ballerinas and the
wardrobe-girls, the gasmen, the property-men, the
carpenters and the call-boys. Flora, our dresser, even found
herself a beau amongst them. He was a black fellow, who
had run away from a sailing family in Wapping to join a
minstrel troupe; not having the voice for it, however, he had
become a stage-hand instead. His name, I believe, was
Albert - but he paid about as much heed to that as anybody
in the business, and was known, universally, as 'Billy-Boy'.
He loved the theatre more than any of us, and spent all his
hours there, playing cards with the door-men and the
carpenters, hanging about in the flies, twitching ropes,
turning handles. He was good-looking, and Flora was very
keen on him; he spent a deal of time, in consequence, at our
dressing-room door, waiting to take her home after the
show -and so we came to know him very well. I liked him
because he came from the river, and had left his family for
the theatre's sake, as I had. Sometimes, in the afternoons or
late at night, he and I would leave Kitty and Flora fussing
over the costumes and take a stroll through the dim and
silent theatre, just for the pleasure of it. He had, somehow,
acquired copies of all the keys to all the Britannia's dusty,
secret places - the cellars and the attics and the ancient
property-rooms - and he would show me hampers full of
costumes from the shows of the 'fifties, papier-mache
crowns and sceptres, armour made of foil. Once or twice he
led me up the great high ladders at the side of the stage, into
the flies: here we would stand with our chins upon the rails,
sharing a cigarette, gazing at the ash as it fluttered through
the web of ropes and platforms to the boards, sixty feet
below us.
It was quite like being at Mrs Dendy's again, with all our
friends around us - except, of course, that Walter wasn't one
of them. He came only occasionally to the Brit, and hardly
at all to Stamford Hill; when he did, I couldn't bear to see
him so ill at ease, and so found business of my own to keep
me occupied elsewhere, and left Kitty to deal with him.
She, I noticed, was as awkward and self-conscious as he
when he came calling, I and seemed to prefer his letters to
his person - for he sent his news to her by post, these days,
so drastically had our old friendship dwindled. But she said
she did not mind, and I understood she didn't wish to talk of
something that was painful to her. I knew it must be very
hard for her, to think that Walter had guessed her secret,
and hated it.
Chapter 7
We had opened at the Brit on Boxing Day, and rehearsed
all through the weeks before it. Christmas, therefore, had
been rather swallowed up; and when Mother had written -as
she had the year before - to ask me home for it, I had had to
send another apologetic note, to say I was again too busy. It
was now almost a year and a half since I had left them; a
year and a half since I had seen the sea and had a decent
fresh oyster-supper. It was a long time — and no matter
how gloomy and spiteful Alice's letter had made me, I
could not help but miss them all and wonder how they
fared. One day in January I came across my old tin trunk
with its yellow enamel inscription. I lifted the lid - and
found Davy's map of Kent pasted on the underside, with
Whitstable marked with a faded arrow, 'To show me where
home was, in case I forgot.' He had meant it as a joke; they
had none of them thought I really would forget them. Now,
however, it must seem to them that I had.
I closed the trunk with a bang; I had felt my eyes begin to
smart. When Kitty came running to see what the noise was,
I was weeping.
'Hey,' she said, and put her arm about me. 'What's this? Not
'I thought of home,' I said, between my sobs, 'and wanted to
go there, suddenly.'
She touched my cheek, then put her fingers to her lips and
licked them. 'Pure brine,' she said. 'That's why you miss it.
I'm amazed you have managed to survive this long away
from the sea, without shrivelling up like a bit of old
seaweed. I should never have taken you away from
Whitstable Bay. Miss Mermaid ..."
I smiled, at last, to hear her use a name I thought she had
forgotten; then I sighed. 'I would like to go back,' I said, 'for
a day or two ..."
'A day or two! I shall die without you!' She laughed, and
looked away; and I guessed that she was only partly joking,
for in all the months that we had spent together, we had not
been separated for so much as a night. I felt that old queer
tightness in my breast, and quickly kissed her. She raised
her hands to hold my face; but again she turned her gaze
'You must go,' she said, 'if it makes you sad like this. I shall
'I shall hate it too,' I said. My tears had dried; it was I, now,
who was doing the consoling. 'And anyway, I shan't be able
to go until we close at Hoxton - and that is weeks away.'
She nodded, and looked thoughtful.
It was weeks away, for Cinderella was not due to finish
until Easter; in the middle of February, however, I found
myself suddenly and unexpectedly at liberty. There was a
fire at the Britannia. There were always fires in theatres in
those days - halls were regularly being burned to the
ground, then built up again, better than before, and no one
thought anything of it; and the fire at the Brit had been
small enough, and no one got injured. But the theatre had
had to be evacuated, and there had been problems with the
exits; afterwards an inspector came, looked at the building,
and said a new escape door must be added. He closed the
theatre while the work was done: tickets were returned,
apologies pasted up; and for a whole half-week we found
ourselves on holiday.
Urged on by Kitty - for she had grown suddenly gallant
about letting me go - I took my chance. I wrote to Mother
and told her that, if I was still welcome, I should be home
the following day - that was Sunday - and would stay till
Wednesday night. Then I went shopping, to buy presents
for the family: there was something thrilling after all, I
found, about the idea of returning to Whitstable after so
long, with a parcel of gifts from London . . .
Even so, it was hard to part from Kitty.
'You will be all right?' I said to her. 'You won't be lonely
'I shall be horribly lonely. I expect you will come back and
find me dead from loneliness!'
'Why don't you come with me? We might catch a later train
'No, Nan; you should see your family without me.'
'I shall think about you every minute.'
'And I shall think of you
'Oh, Kitty ..."
She had been tapping at her tooth with the pearl of her
necklace; when I put my mouth upon hers I felt it, cold and
smooth and hard, between our lips. She let me kiss her, then
moved her head so that our cheeks touched; then she put
her arms about my waist and held me to her rather fiercely quite as if she loved me more than anything.
Whitstable, when I drew into it later that morning, seemed
very changed - very small and grey, and with a sea that was
wider, and a sky that was lower and less blue, than I
remembered. I leaned from the carriage window to gaze at
it all, and so saw Father and Davy, at the station, a moment
or two before they saw me. Even they looked different - I
felt a rush of aching love and strange regret, to think it Father a little older, a little shrunken, somehow; Davy
slightly stouter, and redder in the face.
When they saw me, stepping from the train on to the
platform, they came running.
'Nance! My dearest girl . . . !' This was Father. We
embraced - awkwardly, for I had all my parcels with me,
and a hat upon my head with a veil around it. One of the
parcels fell to the ground and he bent to retrieve it, then
hurried to help me with the others. Davy, meanwhile, took
my hand, then kissed my cheek through the mesh of my
'Just look at you,' he said. 'All dressed up to the ninetynines! Quite the lady, ain't she, Pa?' His cheek grew redder
than ever.
Father straightened, and looked me over, then gave a wide
smile that seemed to pull, somewhat, at the corners of his
'Very smart,' he said. 'Your mother won't know you, hardly.'
I did indeed, I suppose, look a little dressy, but I had not
thought about it until that moment. All my clothes were
good ones, these days, for I had long ago got rid of those
girlish hand-me-downs with which I'd first left home. I had
only wanted, that morning, to look nice. Now I felt selfconscious.
The self-consciousness did not diminish as I walked, on
Father's arm, the little distance to our oyster-shop. The
house, I thought, was shabbier than ever. The weatherboards above the shop showed more wood, now, than blue
paint; and the sign - Astley's Oysters, the Best in Kent hung on one hinge, and was cracked where the rainwater
had soaked it. The stairs we climbed were dark and narrow,
the room into which I finally emerged smaller and more
cramped than I could have believed possible. Worst of all
the street, the stairs, the room, the people in it, all reeked of
fish! It was a stink that was as familiar to me as the scent of
my own armpit; but I was startled, now, to think that I had
ever lived in it and thought it ordinary.
My surprise, I hope, was lost in the general bustle of my
arrival. I had expected Mother and Alice to be waiting for
me; they were - but so were half-a-dozen other people, each
one of whom exclaimed when I appeared, and stepped
forward (except for Alice) to embrace me. I had to smile
and submit to being squeezed and patted until I grew quite
Rhoda - still my brother's sweetheart - was there, looking
perter than ever; Aunty Ro, too, had come along to
welcome me back, together with her son, my cousin
George, and her daughter, Liza, and Liza's baby - except
that the baby was not a baby at all now, but a little boy in
frills. Liza, I saw, was large with child again; I had been
told this in a letter, I believe, but had forgotten it.
I took off my hat once all the welcomes had been said, and
my heavy coat with it. Mother looked me up and down. She
said, 'My goodness, Nance, how tall and fine you look! I do
believe you're taller, almost, than your Father.' I did feel tall
in that tiny, overcrowded room; but I could hardly, I
thought, have really grown. It was just that I was standing
rather straighter. I gazed around - a little proud, despite my
awkwardness - and found a seat, and tea was brought. I still
had not exchanged a word with Alice.
Father asked after Kitty, and I said that she was well.
Where was she playing now? they asked me. Where were
we living? Rosina said, there had been talk that I had gone
upon the stage myself -? And at that I only answered, that I
did 'sometimes join Kitty in the act'.
'Well, fancy that!'
I cannot say what squeamishness still made me keep the
fact of my success from them. It was, I think, because the
act - as I have said - was so entangled with my love: I could
not bear to have them pry at it, or frown at it, or pass the
idea of it on to others, carelessly . . .
It was, I suppose now, a kind of priggishaess; indeed, I
hadn't been amongst them more than half-an-hour before
George, my cousin, gave a cry: 'What's happened to your
accent, Nance? You've gone all lardy-dah.' I looked at him
in real surprise, then listened hard next time I spoke. It was
quite true, my voice had changed. I was not posh, as he had
claimed, but there is a certain lilt that theatre people have a rather odd, unpredictable mixture of all the accents of the
halls, from coster-man to lion comique; and I, all
unknowingly, had I picked it up. I sounded rather like Kitty
- occasionally, even like Walter. I had never realised it till
We drank our tea; there was a lot of fussing over the little
boy. Someone handed him to me for me to nurse - when I
took him, however, he cried.
'Oh dear!' said his mother, tickling him. 'Your Aunty Nance
will think you a real cry-baby.' She took him from me, then
held him near my face: 'Shake hands!' She seized his arm
and waved it. 'Shake hands with Aunty Nancy, like a proper
little gent!' He jerked at her hip, like some great swollen
pistol that at any second might go off; but I dutifully took
his fingers in my own, and squeezed them. Of course, he
snatched his hand away at once, and only wailed the louder.
Everybody laughed. George caught the baby up and swung
him high, so that his hair brushed the cracked and yellowed
plaster of the ceiling. 'Who's a little soldier, then?' he cried.
I looked at Alice, and she glanced away.
The baby quietened at last; the room grew warmer. I saw
Rhoda lean towards my brother and whisper, and when he
nodded, she coughed. She said, 'Nancy, you won't have
heard our bit of good news.' I looked at her properly. She
had her jacket off and her feet, I noticed, were bare but for a
pair of woollen stockings. She seemed very much at home.
Now she held out her hand. On the second finger from the
left there was a narrow strip of gold, with a tiny stone sapphire or diamond, it was too small to tell — mounted
upon it. An engagement ring.
I blushed - I don't know why - and forced a smile. 'Oh,
Rhoda! I am glad. Davy! How nice for you.' I was not glad;
it was not nice; the thought of having Rhoda as a sister-inlaw -of having any kind of sister-in-law! - was peculiarly
horrible. But I must have sounded pleased enough, for they
both grew pink and smug.
Then Aunt Rosina nodded towards my own hand. 'No sign
of a ring on your finger yet, Nance?'
I saw Alice shift in her seat, and shook my head: 'Not yet,
no.' Father opened his mouth to speak; I could not bear,
however, for the conversation to run down that particular
road. I got up, and retrieved my bags. 'I've bought you all
some things,' I said, 'from London.'
There were murmurs and little interested 'Oh's at that.
Mother said I shouldn't have, but reached for her spectacles
and looked expectant. I went to my Aunt, first, and handed
her a bag full of packages. These are for Uncle Joe, and
Mike and the girls. This is for you.' George next: I had
bought him a silver hip-flask. Then Liza, and the baby ... I
went all around the crowded room, and finished up at Alice:
'This is for you.' Her parcel - a hat, in a hat box - was the
biggest. She took it from me with the smallest, straightest,
stiffest smile you ever saw, and began slowly and selfconsciously to pull at its ribbons.
Now everybody had a gift but me. I sat and watched as they
tore at their packages, chewing at my knuckle and smiling
into my hand. One by one the objects appeared, and were
turned and examined in the late morning light. The room
grew quite hushed.
'My word, Nancy,' said Father at last, 'you have done us
proud.' I had bought him a watch-guard, thick and bright as
the one that Walter wore; he held it in his hand, and it
seemed brighter than ever against the red of his palm, the
faded wool of his jacket. He laughed: 'I shall look quite the
thing in this, now, shan't I?' The laugh, however, didn't
sound quite natural.
I looked at Mother. She had a silver-backed brush and a
hand-glass to match: they sat in their wrappers, in her lap,
as if she were afraid to pick them up. I thought at once what had never occurred to me in Oxford Street - how
queer they would look beside her cheap coloured perfume
bottles, her jar of cold-cream, on her old chest of drawers
with its chipped glass handles. She caught my eye, and I
saw that she had thought the same. 'Really, Nance ..." she
said; and her words were almost a reproof.
There were murmurs, now, from all around the room, as
people compared presents. Aunt Rosina held up a pair of
garnet earrings, and blinked at them. George fingered his
flask, and asked me, rather nervously, whether I had won
the sweepstakes. Only Rhoda and my brother seemed really
pleased with their gifts. For Davy I had bought a pair of
shoes, hand-sewn and soft as butter: now he rapped on their
soles with his knuckles, then stepped over the discarded
paper and strings to kiss my cheek. 'What a little star you
are,' he said. 'I shall save these for my wedding-day and be
the best-shod bloke in Kent.'
His words seemed to remind everybody of their manners,
and suddenly they all rose to kiss and thank me, and there
was a general, embarrassed shuffling. I looked over their
shoulders to where Alice still sat. She had taken the lid
from the hat-box, but had not removed the hat, only held it,
listlessly, in her fingers. Davy saw me looking. 'What've
you got, Sis?' he called. When she reluctantly tipped up the
box for him to see, he whistled: 'What a stunner! With an
ostrich feather and a diamond on the brim. Aren't you going
to try it on?'
'I will, later,' she said.
Now everyone turned to look at her.
'Oh, what a beautiful hat!' said Rhoda. 'And what a lovely
shade of red. What shade of red do they call that, Nancy?'
'"Buffalo Red",' I said miserably; I could not have felt more
of a fool if I had given them all a pile of trash - cotton-reels
and candle-stubs, toothpicks and pebbles - wrapped up in
tissue and ribbons and silks.
Rhoda did not notice. '"Buffalo Red"!' she cried. 'Oh, Alice,
do be a sport and give us a look at it on you.'
'Yes, go on, Alice.' This was Rosina. 'Nancy'll think you
don't like it, otherwise.'
'It's all right,' I said quickly. 'Let her try it later.' But George
had jumped over to Alice's chair, taken the hat from her,
and now tried to set it on her head.
'Come on,' he said. 'I want to see if you look like a buffalo
in it.'
'Leave off!' said Alice. There was a scuffle. I closed my
eyes, heard the rip of stitches, and when next I looked my
sister had the bonnet in her lap, and George had half the
ostrich feather in his fingers. The chip of diamante had
flown off, and been lost.
Poor George began to gulp and cough; Rosina said sternly
that she hoped that he was satisfied. Liza took the hat and
the feather and tried awkwardly to reunite them: 'Such a
pretty bonnet,' she said. Alice started to sniff, then placed
her hands before her eyes and hurried from the room.
Father said, 'Well, now!'; he still held his gleaming watchguard. Mother looked at me and shook her head. 'What a
shame,’ she said. 'Oh Nancy, what a shame!'
In time Rosina and the cousins left, and Alice, still rather
swollen-eyed, went out to call on a friend. I took my bags
up to my old room, and washed my face; when I came
down a little later, the presents I had brought had all been
tidied out of sight, and Rhoda was helping Mother peel and
boil potatoes in the kitchen. They shooed me away when I
offered to join them, and said I was a guest; and so I sat
with Father and Davy - who seemed to think that keeping to
their usual habits, and hiding themselves behind the Sunday
papers, would put me at my ease.
We had our dinner, then took a walk to Tankerton and sat
pitching stones into the water. The sea was grey as lead; far
out upon it there were a couple of yawls and barges - bound
for London, where Kitty was. What was she doing now, I
wondered, apart from missing me?
Later there was tea, after which more cousins appeared, to
thank me for their presents and to beg for a look at my
handsome new clothes. We sat upstairs and I showed them
my frocks, my hat with the veil upon it, and my painted
stockings. There was more talk about young men. Alice, I
learned - they were surprised she hadn't told me this - had
finished with Tony Reeves from the Palace, and had started
stepping out with a boy who worked at the shipyard; he was
much taller, they said, than Tony, but not as funny. Freddy,
my old beau, was also seeing a new girl, and seemed likely
to marry her . . . When they asked me, again, if I was
courting, I said I wasn't; but I hesitated over it, and they
smiled. There was someone, they pressed - and just to keep
them quiet, I nodded.
'There was a boy. He played the cornet in an orchestra ..." I
looked away, as if it made me sad to think of him, and felt
them exchange significant glances.
And what about Miss Butler? Surely she had a young man?
'Yes, a man named Walter . ..' I hated myself for saying it but thought, too, How Kitty will laugh at this, when I tell
I had forgotten what early hours they all kept. The cousins
left at ten; at half-past everybody else started yawning.
Davy saw Rhoda home, and Alice bade the rest of us good-
night. Father rose and stretched, then came to me and put
his arm about my neck. 'It's been a treat for us, Nance, to
have you home again - and you grown into such a beauty!'
Then Mother smiled at me - the first real smile that I had
seen upon her face that day; and I knew then how really
glad I was to be at home, amongst them all.
But the gladness didn't last long. In a few minutes more I
said my own good-nights, and found myself alone, at last,
with Alice, in our - her - room. She was in bed, but the
lamp was still high, and her eyes were open. I did not
undress, but stood with my back to the door, quite still,
until she looked at me.
'I'm sorry about the hat,' she said.
'It doesn't matter.' I stepped to the chair by the fireplace,
and began to unbutton my boots.
'You shouldn't have spent so much,' she went on.
I pulled a face: 'I wish I hadn't.' I stepped out of the shoes,
kicked them to one side, and started on the hooks of my
dress. She had closed her eyes, and seemed disinclined to
say anything else. I slowed my hand, and looked at her.
'Your letter,' I said, 'was horrible.'
I don't want to talk about any of that,' she answered quickly,
turning away. 'I told you what I think. I haven't changed.'
'Neither have I.' I tugged harder at the hooks and stepped
free of the dress, then slung it over the back of the chair. I
felt peevish and not at all tired. I went to one of my bags
and got out a cigarette, and when I struck the match to light
it Alice raised her head. I shrugged: 'Another nasty little
habit Kitty taught me.' I sounded just like some hard-faced
bitch of a ballet-girl.
I took off the rest of my clothes, then pulled my night-gown
over my head - then remembered my hair. I could not sleep
with the plait still fastened to me. I glanced towards Alice
again - she had paled at my words, but still watched - then
pulled at the hairpins until the chignon came loose. From
the corner of my eye I saw her mouth fall open. I ran my
fingers through my flat, shorn locks; the action - and the
cigarette that I had just smoked - made me feel wonderfully
I said: 'You can't tell, can you, that it's a false one?'
Now Alice sat up with the blankets gripped before her. 'You
needn't look so horrified,' I said. 'I told you all, I wrote and
told you: I've joined the act; I'm not Kitty's dresser any
more. I'm on the stage myself, now, doing what she does.
Singing, dancing..."
She said, 'You never wrote it like it was really true. If it was
true we would have heard! I don't believe you.'
'I don't care whether you believe me or not.'
She shook her head. 'Singing,' she said. 'Dancing. That's a
tart's life. You couldn't. You wouldn't. ..'
I said, 'I do"; and just to show her that I meant it, I lifted my
nightie and did a little shuffle across the rug.
The dance seemed, like the hair, to frighten her. When she
spoke next it was with a show of bitterness - but her voice
was thick with rising tears. 'I suppose you lift your skirts
like that, do you? and show your legs, on stage, for all the
world to look at!'
'My skirts?' I laughed. 'Good heavens, Alice, I don't wear
skirts! I didn't get my hair cut off to wear a frock. It's
trousers I wear: I wear gentlemen's suits -!'
'Oh!' Now she had begun to cry. 'What a thing to do! What
a thing to do, in front of strangers!'
I said. 'You thought it good enough when Kitty did it.'
'Nothing she did was ever good! She took you off, and has
made you strange. I don't know you at all. I wish you'd
never gone with her - or never come back!'
She lay down, pulled the blankets to her chin, and wept;
and since I don't know a girl who is not moved to tears by
the sight of her own sister weeping, I climbed in beside her,
and my own eyes began to sting.
But when she felt me close she gave a jerk. 'Get off me!'
she cried, and wriggled away. She said it with such real
passion, such horror and grief, I could do nothing but what
she asked, and let her lie at the cold edge of the bed. Soon
she ceased her shaking, and fell silent; and my own eyes
dried, and my face grew hard again. I reached for the lamp,
and put it out; then lay on my back and said nothing.
The bed, that had been chill, grew warmer. I began at last to
wish that Alice would turn, and talk to me. Then I began to
wish that Alice was Kitty. Then I began -I couldn't help it! to think of all that I would do with her, if she was. The
sudden force of my desire unnerved me. I remembered all
the times that I had lain here and pictured similar things,
before Kitty and I had ever even kissed. I remembered
when I had first slept beside her at Ginevra Road, when I
was used only to sharing with my sister. Now Alice's body
felt strange to me; it seemed queer and wrong, somehow, to
lie so close to someone and not kiss and stroke them .. .
I thought suddenly, Suppose I fall asleep, forget that she
isn't Kitty, and put a hand upon her, or a leg —?
I got up, put my coat over my shoulders, and smoked
another cigarette. Alice did not stir.
I squinted at my watch: half-past eleven. I wondered, again,
what Kitty was doing; and sent a mental message through
the night, to Stamford Hill, to make her pause - whatever
her business was just then - and remember to think of me,
in Whitstable.
My visit, after that poor start, was not brilliant. I had
arrived on a Sunday, and the following days, of course,
were working ones. I didn't fall asleep, that first night, until
very late, but the next morning I woke when Alice woke, at
half-past six, and forced myself to rise and eat my breakfast
with the others, at the parlour-table. Then, however, I didn't
know whether to offer to take up my old duties in the
kitchen, with the oyster-knife - I couldn't tell whether they
would like it or expect it, or even whether I could bear to
try it. In the end I drifted down with them and found I
wasn't needed anyway; for they had a girl, now, to sever
and beard the natives, and she was just as quick, it seemed,
as I had been. I stood beside her - she was rather pretty and made some half-hearted passes with my knife at a
dozen or so shells . . . But the water chilled and stung me,
and soon I preferred to sit and watch - then I closed my
eyes and placed my head upon my arms, and listened to the
hum of gossip from the restaurant, and the bubble of the
pans . . .
hi short, I fell asleep; and only woke when Father, hurrying
by me, stumbled over my skirts and spilled a pot of liquor.
Then it was suggested that I go upstairs - out of their way,
they meant. And so I passed the afternoon alone, alternately
nodding over the Illustrated Police News and pacing the
parlour to keep myself awake - and wondering, frankly,
why I had come home at all.
The next day, if anything, was worse. Mother said straight
out that I must not think of spoiling my dress and hurting
my hands by trying to help them in the kitchen; that I was
here to have a holiday, not to work. I had read the Police
News from cover to cover: all there was now was Father's
Fish Trades Gazette, and I couldn't bear the thought of a
day upstairs with that. I put my travelling-dress back on and
went out walking; I started out so early that by ten o'clock I
had strolled as far as Seasalter and back. At last, desperate
for some amusement, I took the train to Canterbury - and
while my parents and sister laboured in the oyster-house, I
passed the day as a tourist, wandering about the cloisters of
a cathedral which, in all the years that I had lived so near to
it, I'd never cared to visit.
But on the way back to the station I passed before the
Palace. It looked very different to me, now that I had an eye
for halls; and when I stepped up to the posters to look at the
bill, I saw that all the acts were rather second-rate. The
doors, of course, were closed, and the foyer dark; but I
couldn't resist it, and wandered round to the stage door and
asked for Tony Reeves.
I had my hat and veil on: when he saw me, he didn't
recognise me. When he knew me at last, however, he
smiled and kissed my hand.
'Nancy! What a treat!' He, at least, had not changed at all.
He led me to his office and sat me down. I said I was here
on a visit, and had been sent out to keep myself amused. I
said, too, that I was sorry to hear about him and Alice.
He shrugged. 'I knew she'd never marry me or nothing like
that. But I do miss her; and she was a lovely looker though not quite as lovely, if you don't mind my saying so,
as her sister has gone and turned out..."
I didn't mind, for I knew that he was only flirting - indeed,
it was rather pleasant to be flirted with by an old beau of
Alice's. Instead I asked him about the hall - about how it
did, who he had had there, what they had sung. At the end
of it he picked up a pen that lay on his desk, and began to
fiddle with it.
'And when are we to have Miss Butler back again?' he
asked. 'I gather you and she've teamed up properly now.' I
stared, then felt my cheeks grow red; but he only meant, of
course, the act: 'I hear you're working the halls together;
and are quite a pair, by all accounts.'
Now I smiled. 'How did you find that out? I am very quiet
about it with my family.'
'I read the Era, don't I? "Kitty Butler and Nan King". I
know a stage-name when I see one ..."
I laughed, 'Oh, isn't it funny, Tony? Isn't it just the most
marvellous thing? We are in Cinderella at the minute, at the
Brit. Kitty's the Prince, and I'm Dandini. I have to speak,
sing, dance, slap my thigh, the works, in velvet breeches.
And the crowd go mad for it!'
He smiled at my pleasure - it was lovely to be allowed to be
pleased with myself, at last! - then shook his head. 'Your
folks, from what I've heard them say, don't know the half of
it. Why don't you have them up to see you on the stage?
Why the big secret?'
I shrugged, then hesitated; then, 'Alice doesn't care for Kitty
..." I said.
'And you and Kitty: you're still in her pocket? You're still
struck with her like you always was?' I nodded. He sniffed.
Then, she's a lucky girl. . .'
He seemed only to be flirting again; but I had the queerest
impression, too, that he knew more than he was letting on and didn't care a fig about it. I answered, 'I'm the lucky one,'
and held his gaze.
He tapped with his pen again upon his blotter. 'Maybe.'
Then he winked.
I stayed at the Palace until it became rather obvious that
Tony had other business to get on with, then took my leave
of him. Once outside, I stood again before the foyer doors,
reluctant to resign the reek of beer and grease-paint and
confront the altogether different scents of Whitstable, our
Parlour and our home. It had been good to talk of Kitty - so
good that, seated at the supper-table later, between silent
Alice and nasty Rhoda with her tiny, flashing sapphire, I
missed her all the more. I was due to spend another day
with them, but now I thought I could not face it. I said, as
we started on our puddings, that I had changed my mind
and would take the morning, rather than the evening train
tomorrow - that I had remembered things that I must do at
the theatre, that I shouldn't put off till Thursday.
They didn't seem surprised, though Father said it was a
shame. Later, as I kissed them good-night, he cleared his
throat. There you are,' he said, 'back up to London in the
morning, and I've barely had time for a proper look at you.'
I smiled. 'Have you had a nice time with us, Nance?'
'Oh yes.'
'And you will take care of yourself, in London?' asked
Mother. 'It seems very far away.'
I laughed. 'It's not so far.'
'Far enough,' she said, 'to keep you from us for a year and a
'I've been busy,' I said. 'We have been terribly busy, both of
us.' She nodded, not much impressed: she had heard all this
before, in letters.
'Just make sure it's not so long before you come home
again. It is very nice to get your parcels; it was very nice to
get those gifts; but we would rather have you, than, a
hairbrush or a pair of boots.' I looked away, abashed; I still
felt foolish when I thought about the presents. Even so, I
didn't think she needed to be quite so rusty about it, quite so
Having made the decision to leave sooner, I grew impatient.
I packed my bags that night, and rose, next morning, even
earlier than Alice. At seven, when the breakfast things were
cleared away, I was ready to go. I embraced them all, but
my parting was not so sad, nor so sweet, as it had been the
first time I had left them; and I had no premonition of
anything to come, to make it sadder. Davy was kind, and
made me promise I would come home for his wedding, and
said I might bring Kitty if I liked, which made me love him
all the more. Mother smiled, but her smile was tight; Alice
was so chill that, in the end, I turned my back on her. Only
Father hugged me to him as if really loath to get me go; and
when he said that he would miss me, I knew he meant it.
No one could be spared, this time, to walk me to the station,
so I made my own way there. I didn't look at Whitstable, or
the sea, as my train pulled away from it; I certainly did not
think, I shan't see you again, for years and years - and if I
had, I am ashamed to say it would not much have troubled
me. I thought only of Kitty. It was still only half-past seven;
she wouldn't rise, I knew, till ten, and I planned to surprise
her - to let myself into our rooms at Stamford Hill, and
creep into her bed. The train rolled on, through Faversham
and Rochester. I was not impatient now. I did not need to
be impatient. I merely sat and thought of her warm,
slumbering body that I would soon embrace; I imagined her
pleasure, her surprise, her rising love, at seeing me returned
so soon.
Our house, when I gazed up at it from the street, was, as I
had hoped, quite dark and shuttered. I walked on tip-toe up
the steps, and eased my key into the lock. The passageway
was quiet: even our landlady and her husband seemed still
abed. I laid down my bags, and took off my coat. There was
a cloak already hanging from the hat-stand, and I squinted
at it: it was Walter's. How queer, I thought, he must have
come here yesterday, and forgotten it! - and soon, creeping
up the darkened staircase, I forgot it myself.
I reached Kitty's door, and put my ear to it. I had expected
silence, but there was a sound from beyond it — a kind of
lapping sound, as of a kitten at a saucer of milk. I thought,
Damn! She must be awake already and taking her tea; then
I caught the creak of the bedstead, and was sure of it.
Disappointed, but gay with the expectation of seeing her, I
caught hold of the door-handle and entered the room.
She was indeed awake. She sat in bed, propped up against a
pillow, with the blankets raised as far as her armpits and her
naked arms upon the counterpane. There was a lamp lit, and
turned high; the room was not at all dark. At a little washhand stand at the foot of the bed there was another figure.
Walter. He was jacketless, and collarless; his shirt was
tucked roughly into his trousers, but his braces dangled,
almost to his knees. He was bending over the bowl of
water, bathing his face - that had been the lapping sound
that I had heard. His whiskers were dark and gleaming
where he had wet them.
It was his eye that I caught first. He gazed at me in sheer
surprise, his hands lifted, the water running from them into
his sleeves; then his face gave a kind of twitch, horrible to
behold - and at the same time, from the corner of my eye, I
saw Kitty twitch, too, beneath the bedclothes.
Even then, I think, I didn't quite understand.
'What's this?' I said, and laughed a little, nervously. I looked
at Kitty, waiting for her to join in my laughter - to say, 'Oh,
Nan! How funny this must look to you! It isn't how it
seems, at all.'
But she did not even smile. She gazed at me with fearful
eyes, and pulled the blankets higher, as if to hide her
nakedness from me. From me!
It was Walter who spoke.
'Nan,' he said hesitantly -I had never heard his voice so dry
and bare - 'Nan, you have surprised us. We didn't look for
you until tonight.' He took up a towel and rubbed at his face
with it. Then he stepped very quickly to the chair, seized his
jacket and pulled it on. His hands, I saw, were shaking.
I had never seen him shake before.
I said, 'I caught an earlier train . . .' My mouth, like his, had
dried; my voice, in consequence, sounded slow and thick.
'Indeed, I thought it was still very early. How long, Walter,
have you been here?'
He shook his head, as if the question pained him, and took a
step towards me. Then he said rather urgently: 'Nan, forgive
me. This is not for your eyes. Will you come downstairs
with me and let us talk . . . ?'
His tone was strange; and hearing it, I knew for certain.
'No!' I folded my hands over my belly: there was a hot, sour
churning in there, as if they had fed me poison. At my cry
Kitty shivered and grew white. I turned to her. 'It isn't true!'
I said. 'Oh tell me, tell me - say it ain't true!' She wouldn't
look at me, only placed her hands before her eyes and
began to weep.
Walter came closer and put his hand upon my arm.
'Get away!' I cried, and stepped free of him towards the
bed. 'Kitty? Kitty?' I knelt beside her, took her hand from
her face, and held it to my own lips. I kissed her fingers, her
nails, her palm, her wrist; her knuckles, that were damp
from her own weeping, were soon drenched with tears and
slobber. Walter looked on, appalled, still trembling.
At last, she met my gaze. 'It's true,' she whispered.
I gave a start, and a moan - then heard her shriek, felt
Walter's fingers grip my shoulders, and realised that I had
bitten her, like a dog. She pulled her hand away and gazed
at me in horror. Again I shook Walter off, then turned to
scream at him. 'Get away, get out! Get out, and leave us!'
He hesitated; I kicked at his ankle with my foot until he
stepped away.
'You are not yourself, Nan -'
'Get out!'
'I am afraid to leave you -'
'Get out!'
He flinched. 'I shall go beyond the door- no further.' Then
he looked at Kitty, and when she nodded he left, closing the
door behind him very gently.
There was a silence, broken only by the sound of my
ragged breathing, and Kitty's gentle weeping: just so had I
seen my sister weep, three days before. Nothing that Kitty
ever did was good! she had said. I placed my cheek upon
the counterpane where it covered Kitty's thighs, and closed
my eyes.
'You made me think he was your friend,' I said. 'And then
you made me think he didn't care for you, because of us.'
'I didn't know what else to do. He was only my friend; and
then, and then -'
To think of you and him - for all that time -'
'It wasn't what you think, before last night.'
'I don't believe you.'
'Oh Nan, it's true, I swear! Before last night - how could
there have been anything? - before last night, there was
only talk and-kisses.'
Before last night. . . Before last night I had been glad,
beloved, content, secure; before last night I had known
myself so full of love and desire I thought I should die of it!
At Kitty's words I saw that the pain of my love was not a
tenth, not a hundredth, not a thousandth part of the pain I
should suffer, at her hands, now.
I opened my eyes. Kitty herself looked ill and frightened. I
said, 'And the - kisses: when did they start?' But even as I
asked it, I guessed the answer: That night, at Deacon's ..."
She hesitated - then nodded; and I saw it all again, and
understood it all: the awkwardness, the silences, the letters.
I had pitied Walter - pitied him! When all the time it had
been I who was the fool; when all the time they had been
meeting, whispering together, caressing . . .
The thought was a torment to me. Walter was our friend mine, as well as hers. I knew he loved her, but — he
seemed so old, so uncle-ish, still. Could she ever, really,
have brought herself to want to lie with him? It was as if I
had caught her in bed with my own father!
I began, once more, to weep. 'How could you?' I said
through my tears: I sounded like a stage husband in some
penny gaff. 'How could you?" Beneath the blankets I felt
her squirm.
'I didn't like to do it!' she said miserably. 'At times I could
hardly bear it -'
'I thought you loved me! You said that you loved me!'
'I do love you! I do, I do!'
'You said there was nothing you wanted, but me! You said
we would be together, for ever!'
'I never said -'
'You let me think it! You made me think it! You said, so
many times, how glad you were. Why couldn't we have
gone on, as we were . . . ?'
'You know why! It is all right, that sort of thing, when you
are girls. But as we got older . .. We're not a couple of
scullery-maids, to do as we please and have no one notice
it. We are known; we are looked at -'
'I don't want to be known, then, if it means losing you! I
don't want to be looked at, if not by you, Kitty ..."
She pressed my hand. 'But I do,' she said. 'I do. And so long
as I am looked at, I cannot bear also to be - laughed at; or
hated; or scorned, as a -'
'As a tom!'
'But, we could be careful -'
'We should never be careful enough! You are too much Nan, you are too much like a boy ..."
Too much - like a boy? You've never said it before! Too
much like a boy - yet, you'd rather go with Walter! Do you
-love him?’
She looked away. 'He's very - kind,' she said.
'Very kind.' I heard my voice grow hard and bitter at last. I
sat up, and leaned away from her. 'And so you had him
come, while I was gone; and he was kind to you, in our bed
..." I got to my feet, suddenly conscious of the soiled sheets
and mattress; of her bare flesh, that he had put his hands
upon, his mouth . . . 'Oh, God! How long would you have
carried on? Would you let me kiss you, after him?’
She reached for me, to seize my hand. 'We planned, I
swear, to tell you tonight. Tonight was when you were to
know it all. . .'
There was something queer about the way she said it. I had
been pacing at her side; now I grew still. 'What do you
mean?' I said. 'What do you mean, by all?’
She took her hand away. 'We are - oh, Nan, don't hate me
for it! We are to be - married.'
'Married?' If I had had time to think about it I might have
expected it; but I had had no time at all, and the word made
me giddier and sicker than ever. 'Married? But what - but
what about me? Where shall I live? What shall I do? What
about, what about -' I had thought of something new. 'What
about the act? How shall we work . . . ?'
She looked away. 'Walter has a plan. For a new act. He
wants to return to the halls ..."
To the halls? After this? With you and me -?'
'No. With me. Just me.'
Just her. I felt myself begin to shake. I said, 'You have
killed me, Kitty.' My voice sounded strange even to my
own ears; I believe it frightened her, for she glanced a little
wildly to the door, and began to speak, very fast, but in a
kind of shrill whisper.
'You mustn't say such things,' she said. 'It has been a shock
for you. But you will see, in time - we shall be friends
again, the three of us!' She reached for me; her voice grew
shriller yet quieter still. 'Can you not see, how this is for the
best? With Walter as my husband, who would think, who
would say -' I pulled away; she gripped me tighter - then
cried at last, in a kind of panic: 'Oh, you don't think, do you,
that I'll let him take me from you?'
At that I pushed her, and she fell back against her pillow.
The counterpane was still before her, but it had slipped a
little. I caught sight of the swell of her breast, the pink of
her nipple. An inch below the downy hollow of her throat jerking with each breath and pounding heart-beat - hung the
pearl that I had bought her, on its silver chain. I
remembered kissing it, three days before; perhaps, last
night or this morning, Walter had felt it chill and hard
against his own tongue.
I stepped towards her, seized the necklace, and - again, just
as if I were a character in a novel or a play - I tugged at it.
At once the chain gave a satisfying snap! and dangled
broken from my hand. I gazed at it for a second, then
dashed it from me and heard it scutter across the
Kitty shouted -I believe she shouted Walter's name. At any
rate, the door now opened and he appeared, white-faced
above his ginger whiskers, and with his braces still
dangling below the hem of his jacket, his collarless shirt
still flapping at his throat. He ran to the other side of the
bed, and took Kitty in his arms.
'If you have hurt her -' he said. I laughed outright at that.
'Hurt her? Hurt her? I should like to kill her! Had I only a
pistol on me now I would shoot her through the heart - and
myself as well! And leave you to marry a corpse!'
'You have gone mad,' he said. This has driven you quite
'And do you wonder at it? Do you know - has she told you what we are - what we were - to one another?'
'Nan!' said Kitty quickly. I kept my eyes fixed upon Walter.
'I know,' he said slowly, 'that you were - sweethearts, of a
'Of a kind. The kind that - what? Hold hands? Did you
think, then, that you were the first to have her, in this bed?
Didn't she tell you that I fuck her?'
He flinched - and so did I, for the word sounded terrible: I
had never said it before, and had not known I was about to
use it now. His gaze, however, remained steady: I saw, with
increasing misery, that he knew it all, and did not care; that
perhaps - who knows? - he even liked it. He was too much
the gentleman to make me a foul-mouthed reply, but his
expression - a curious mixture of contempt, complacency,
and pity -was a speaking one. It said, That was not fucking,
as the world knows it! It said, You fucked her so well, that
she has left you! It said, You may have fucked her first, but
I shall fuck her now and ever after!
He was my rival; and had defeated me, at last.
I took a step away from the bed, and then another. Kitty
swallowed, her head still upon Walter's great breast. Her
eyes were large and lustrous with unshed tears, her lip red
where she had bitten it; her cheeks were pale, and the
freckles very dark upon them - there were freckles, too,
upon the flesh of her shoulder and chest, where it showed
above the blankets. She was about as beautiful as I had ever
seen her.
Good-bye, I thought - then I turned and fled.
I ran down the stairs; my skirts snagged about my feet and I
almost stumbled. I ran past the open parlour-door; past the
hat-stand, where my coat hung next to Walter's; past the
suitcase I had brought from Whitstable. I didn't pause to
pick anything up, not even so much as a glove or a bonnet. I
could touch nothing in that place now - it had become like a
plague-house to me. I ran to the door and pulled it open,
then left it wide behind me as I hurried down the steps and
into the street. It was very cold, but the air was still and dry.
I didn't look behind me.
I continued running until my side began to ache; then I half
walked, half trotted, until the pain subsided; then I ran
again. I had reached Stoke Newington and was headed
south on the long straight road that led to Dalston,
Shoreditch, and the City. Beyond that, I could not think: I
had wit enough only to keep Stamford Hill - and her, and
him - continually behind me; and to run. I was half-blind
with weeping; my eyeballs felt swollen and hot in their
sockets, my face was soaked with slobber, and growing icy.
People must have stared as I passed by them; I believe one
or two fellows reached out to pluck me by the arm; but I
saw and heard them not, simply hurried, stumbling over my
skirts, until sheer exhaustion made me slow my pace and
look about me.
I had reached a little bridge over a canal. There were barges
on the water, but they were some way off yet, and the water
below me was perfectly smooth and thick. I thought of that
night, when Kitty and I had stood above the Thames, and
she had let me kiss her ... I almost cried out at the memory.
I placed my hands upon the iron rail: I believe that, for a
second, I really considered heaving myself over it, and
making my escape that way.
But I was as cowardly, in my own fashion, as Kitty herself.
I could not bear the thought of that brown water sucking at
my skirts, washing over my head, filling up my mouth. I
turned away and put my hands before my eyes, and forced
my brain to stop its dreadful whirling. I could not, I knew,
keep running all day. I should have to find a place to hide
myself. I had nothing on me but my dress. I groaned aloud,
and gazed about me again - but this time rather desperately.
Then I held my breath. I recognised this bridge: we had
driven over it every night since Christmas, on our way to
Cinderella. The Britannia Theatre was nearby; and there
was money, I knew, in our dressing-room.
I set off, wiping my face with my sleeve, smoothing my
dress and my hair. The door-man at the theatre eyed me
rather curiously when he let me in, but was pleasant
enough. I knew him well, and had often stopped to chat
with him; today, however, I only nodded to him as I took
my key, and hurried by without a smile. I didn't care what
he thought; I knew I should not be seeing him again.
The theatre, of course, was still shut up: there were sounds
of hammering from the hall as the carpenters finished their
work, but apart from that the corridors, the green-room - all
were quiet. I was glad: I didn't want to be seen by anyone. I
walked very fast but very quietly to the dressing-rooms,
until I reached the door that said Miss Butler and Miss
King. Then very stealthily - for I half-feared, in my fevered
state, that Kitty might be on the other side, awaiting me - I
unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The room beyond it was dark: I stepped across it in the light
from the corridor, struck a match and lit a gas-jet, then
closed the door as softly as I could. I knew just what I
wanted. In a cupboard beneath Kitty's table there was a
little tin box with a pile of coins and notes in it - a portion
of our wages went there every week, for us to draw on as
we chose. The key to it lay mixed up with her sticks of
grease-paint, in the old cigar-box in which she kept her
make-up. I took this box, and tipped it up; the sticks fell
out, and so did the key - and so, I saw, did something else.
There had always been a sheet of coloured paper at the
bottom of the box, and I had never thought to lift it. Now it
had come loose and behind it was a card. I picked it up with
trembling fingers, and studied it. It was creased, and stained
with make-up, but I knew it at once. On the front was a
picture of an oyster-smack; two girls smiled from its deck
through a patina of powder and grease, and on the sail
someone had inked, 'To London'. There was more writing
on the back - Kitty's address at the Canterbury Palace, and a
message: 'I can come!!! You must do without your dresser
for a few nights, though, while I make all ready ..." It was
signed: 'Fondly, Your Nan'.
It was the card that I had sent her, so long ago, before we
had even moved to Brixton; and she had kept it, secretly, as
if she treasured it.
I held the card between my fingers for a moment; then I
returned it to its box and placed the paper sheet above it, as
before. Then I laid my head upon the table, and wept, again,
until I could weep no more.
I opened the tin box at last, and took, without counting it,
all the money that lay inside - about twenty pounds, as it
would turn out, and only a fraction, of course, of my total
earnings of the past twelve months; but I felt so dazed and
ill at that moment I could hardly imagine what I would ever
need money for, again. I put the cash into an envelope,
tucked the envelope into my belt, and turned to go.
I hadn't glanced about me, yet, at all; now, however, I took
a last look round. One thing only caught my eye, and made
me hesitate: our rail of costumes. They were all here, the
suits that I had worn upon the stage at Kitty's side - the
velvet breeches, the shirts, the serge jackets, the fancy
waistcoats. I took a step towards them, and ran my hand
along the line of sleeves. I would never take them up again .
The thought was too much; I couldn't leave them. There
were a couple of old sailors' bags nearby - giant great things
that we had used once or twice to rehearse with, in the
afternoons, when the Britannia stage was quiet and clear.
They were filled with rags: very quickly I took one of them
and loosened the cord at its neck, and pulled all its stuffing
out upon the floor until it was quite empty. Then I stepped
to the rail, and began to tear my costumes from it - not all
of them, but the ones I could not bear to part with, the blue
serge suit, the Oxford bags, the scarlet guardsman's uniform
- and stuffed them into the bag. I took shoes, too, and shirts,
and neck-ties — even a couple of hats. I didn't stop to think
about it, only worked, sweating, until the bag was full and
almost as tall as myself. It was heavy, and I staggered when
I lifted it; but it was strangely satisfying to have a real
burden upon my shoulders - a kind of counterweight to my
terrible heaviness of heart.
Thus laden, I made my way through the corridors of the
Britannia. I passed no one; I looked for no one. Only when
I reached the stage door did I see a face that I was rather
glad to see: Billy-Boy sat in the doorman's office, quite
alone, with a cigarette between his fingers. He looked up
when I approached, and gazed in wonder at my bag, my
swollen eyes, my mottled cheeks.
'Lord, Nan,' he said, getting to his feet. 'Whatever is up with
you? Are you sick?'
I shook my head. 'Give me your fag, Bill, will you?' He did
so, and I pulled on it and coughed. He watched me warily.
'You don't look right, at all,' he said. 'Where's Kitty?'
I drew on the fag again, and handed it hack to him.
'Gone,' I said. Then I pulled at the door and stepped into the
street beyond. I heard Billy-Boy's voice, lifted in anxiety
and alarm, but the closing door shut off his words. I raised
my bag a little higher on my shoulder, and began to walk. I
took one turning, and then another. I passed a squalid
tenement, entered a busy street, and joined a throng of
pedestrians. London absorbed me; and for a little while I
ceased, entirely, to think.
Chapter 8
I walked for something like an hour before I rested again;
but the course I took was a random one that sometimes
doubled back upon itself: my aim was less to run from Kitty
than to hide from her, to lose myself in the grey anonymous
spaces of the city. I wanted a room - a small room, a mean
room, a room that would prove invisible to any pursuing
eye. I saw myself entering it and covering my head, like
some burrowing or hibernating creature, a wood-louse or a
rat. So I kept to the streets where I thought I should find it,
the grim and uninviting streets where there were lodginghouses, doss-houses, houses with cards in the window
saying Beds-to-Rent. Any one of them, I suppose, might
have suited me; but I was looking for a sign to welcome
And at last it seemed to me I found it. I had strayed through
Moorgate, wandered towards St Paul's, then turned and
finished up almost at Clerkenwell. Still I had given no
thought to the people about me - to the men and the
children who stared, or sometimes laughed, to see me
trudging, blank-faced, with my sailor's load. My head was
bowed, my eyes half-closed; but I became aware now that I
had entered some kind of square -grew conscious of a
bustle, a hum of business close at hand; grew conscious,
too, of a smell: some rank, sweet, sickening odour I vaguely
recognised but could not name. I walked more slowly, and
felt the road begin to pull, a little stickily, at the soles of my
shoes. I opened my eyes: the stones I stood upon were red
and running with water and blood. I looked up, and saw a
graceful iron building filled with vans and barrows and
porters, all bearing carcases.
I was at Smithfield, at the Dead Meat Market.
I gave a kind of sigh to know it. Close at hand there was a
tobacconist's booth: I went to it and bought a tin of
cigarettes and some matches; and when the boy handed me
my change I asked him if there were any lodging-houses
nearby, that might have rooms to spare. He gave me the
names of two or three -adding, in a warning sort of way:
'They ain't werry smart, miss, the lodgings round these
parts.' I only nodded, and turned away; then walked on, to
the first address that he had mentioned.
It turned out to be a tall, crumbling house in an unswept
row, very close to the Farringdon Street railway. The front
yard had a bedstead in it, and a dozen rusty cans and
broken-down crates; in the yard next door there was a
group of barefoot children, stirring water into pails of earth.
But I hardly raised my eyes to any of it. I only stepped to
the door, laid my bag upon the step, and knocked. Behind
me, in the cut of the railway, a train rumbled and hissed. As
it passed, the step on which I rested gave a shake.
My knock was answered by a pale little girl who stared
hard at me while I enquired after the vacant rooms, then
turned and called into the darkness behind her. After a
second, a lady came; and she, too, looked me over. I
thought then of how I must appear, in my expensive dress
but hatless and gloveless, and with red eyes and a running
nose. But I considered this image of myself rather listlessly,
as if it did not much concern me; and the lady at last must
have thought me harmless enough. She said her name was
Mrs Best, that she had one room left for rent; that the
charge was five shillings a week - or seven, with
attendance; and that she liked her rent in advance.
Would the terms suit me? I gave a quick, half-hearted show
of calculation - I felt quite incapable of serious thought then said that they would.
The room to which she led me was cramped and mean and
perfectly colourless; everything in it - the wallpaper, the
carpets, even the tiles beside the hearth - having been
rubbed or bleached or grimed to some variety of grey.
There was no gas, only two oil-lamps with cracked and
sooty chimneys. Above the mantel there was one small
looking-glass, as cloudy and as speckled as the back of an
old man's hand. The window faced the Market. It was all
about as different from our house at Stamford Hill as it was
possible for any room to be: that, at least, gave me a dreary
kind of satisfaction and relief. All I really saw, however,
was the bed - a horrible old down mattress, yellow at the
edges and blackened in the middle with an ancient
bloodstain the size of a saucer - and the door. The bed, for
all its rankness, seemed at that moment wonderfully
inviting. The door was solid, and had a key in it.
I told Mrs Best therefore that I should like to take the room
at once, and drew out the envelope that held my money.
When she saw that, she sniffed -I think she took me for a
gay girl. 'It is only fair to tell you now,' she said, 'that the
house I keep here is a tidy one; and I like my lodgers ditto. I
have had trouble with single ladies in the past. I don't care
what you do or who you see outside my house; but one
thing I won't have, that's men-friends in a single lady's
room . . .'
I said that I would give her no trouble on that score.
I must have been a queer sort of tenant for Mrs Best, in
those first weeks after my flight from Stamford Hill. I paid
my rent very promptly, but never went out. I received no
visits, no letters or cards; kept stubbornly to my room, with
the shutters closed fast — there to pace the creaking floor,
or to mumble or to weep .. .
I think my fellow tenants thought me mad; perhaps I was
mad. My life, however, seemed sensible enough to me then.
For where else, in my misery, could I have run to? All my
London friends - Mrs Dendy, Sims and Percy, Billy-Boy
and Flora - were also Kitty's friends. If I went to them, what
would they say? They would only be glad, to know that
Kitty and Walter were lovers at last! And if I went home, to
Whitstable, what would they say? I had come away from
there so recently, and been so proud; and it seemed as if
they had all been promising I would be humbled from the
very day I left them. It had been hard to live among them,
wanting Kitty. How could I return to them, and take up my
old habits, having lost her?
So, though I imagined their letters arriving at Stamford Hill,
and lying there unopened and unanswered; though I
guessed that, recalling my archness, they would think that I
had turned my back on them, and soon stop writing at all, I
could not help it. If I remembered the things I had left
behind me - my women's clothes, and my wages; my letters
and cards from fans and admirers; my old tin trunk with my
initials on it - I remembered them dully, as if they were the
pieces of some other person's history. When I thought of
Cinderella, and how I had broken my contract and let them
down at the Britannia, I didn't much care. I was known in
my new home as 'Miss Astley'. If my neighbours had ever
seen Nan King upon the stage, they did not see her now, in
me - indeed, I barely recognised her there myself. The
costumes I had brought with me I found myself quite
unable, after all, to gaze upon. I placed them beneath my
bed, still in their bag, and left them there to moulder.
No one came after me, for no one knew where I was. I was
hidden, lost. I had cast off all my friends and joys, and
embraced misery as my career. For a week — and then
another - and another, and another - I did nothing but
slumber, and weep, and pace my chamber; or else I would
stand with my brow pressed to the dirty window, gazing at
the Market, watching as the carcases were brought and
piled, and heaved about, and sold, and taken away. The
only faces I saw were those of Mrs Best, and Mary - the
little skivvy who had opened the door to me, who changed
my pot and brought me coal and water, and who I
sometimes sent on errands to buy me cigarettes and food.
Her expression as she handed me my packages showed me
how strange I had become; but to her fear and her wonder
alike, I was indifferent. I was indifferent to everything
except my own grief - and this I indulged with a strange
and horrible passion.
I believe I barely washed in all those weeks - and certainly I
did not change my dress, for I had no other. Very early on I
gave off wearing my false chignon, too, and let my hair
straggle greasily about my ears. I smoked, endlessly - my
fingers grew brown, from the nail to the knuckle; but I ate
hardly at all. For all that I liked to watch the carcases being
towed about at Smithfield, the thought of meat upon my
tongue made me nauseous, and I had stomach for none but
the blandest of foods. Like a woman quickening with child
I developed a curious appetite: I longed only for sweet,
white bread. I gave Mary shilling after shilling, and sent her
to Camden Town and Whitechapel, Limehouse and Soho,
for bagels, brioches and flat Greek loaves, and buns from
the Chinese bakeries. These I would eat dipped in mugs of
tea, which I brewed, ferociously strong, in a pot on the
hearth, and sweetened with condensed milk. It was the
drink I had used to make for Kitty, in our first days together
at the Canterbury Palace. The taste of it was like the taste of
her; and a comfort, and a frightful torment, all at once.
The weeks, for all my carelessness to their passing, passed
by anyway. There is little to say about them, except that
they were dreadful. The tenant in the room above my own
moved out, and was replaced by a poor couple with a baby:
the baby was colicky, and cried in the night. Mrs Best's son
found a sweetheart, and brought her to the house: she was
given tea and sandwiches in the downstairs parlour; she
sang songs, while someone played on the piano. Mary
broke a window with a broom, and shrieked - then shrieked
again when Mrs Best rolled up her sleeve and slapped her.
Such were the sounds I caught, in my grim chamber. They
might have solaced me, except that I was beyond solace.
They only kept me mindful of the things - all the ordinary
things! the smack of a kiss, the lilt of a voice lifted in
pleasure or anger - that I had left behind me. When I gazed
at the world from my dusty window, I might as well have
been gazing at a colony of ants, or a swarming bee-hive: I
could recognise nothing in it that had once been mine. It
was only by the lightening and the warming of the days,
and the thickening of the reek of blood from Smithfield,
that I began to realise that the year was edging slowly into
I might have faded into nothingness, I think, along with the
carpet and the wallpaper. I might have died, and my grave
gone unvisited and unmarked. I might have remained in my
stupor till doomsday - I think I would have - if something
hadn't happened, at last, to rouse me from it.
I had been at Mrs Best's for about seven or eight weeks, and
had not once stepped beyond her door. I still ate only what
Mary brought me; and though I only ever sent her off, as I
have said, for bread and tea and milk, she sometimes came
with more substantial foods, to try and tempt me into eating
them. 'You'll perish, miss,' she would say, 'if you don't get
your wittles'; and she'd hand me baked potatoes, and pies,
and eels in jelly, which she bought hot from the stalls and
pie-shops on the Farringdon Road, and had bound with
layers of newsprint into tight little parcels, steaming and
damp. I took them - I might have taken arsenic, if she had
offered me a packet of that - and it became my habit, as I
ate my potato or my pie, to flatten the wrappings across my
lap and study the columns of print - the tales of thefts and
murders and prizefights, ten days old. I would do this in the
same dull spirit in which I gazed from my window at the
streets of East London; but one evening, as I smoothed a
piece of newspaper over my knee and brushed the crumbs
of pastry from its creases, I saw a name I knew.
The page had been torn from one of the cheap theatrical
papers, and bore a feature entitled Music-Hall Romances.
The words appeared in a kind of banner, held aloft by
cherubs; but beneath them there were three or four smaller
headlines -they said things like Ben and Milly Announce
Their Engagement; Knockabout Acrobats to Wed; Hal
Harvey and Helen's Heavenly Honeymoon! I knew none of
these artistes, nor did I linger over their stories; for in the
very centre of the article there was a column of print and a
photograph from which, once I had seen it, I could not tear
my eyes.
Butler and Bliss, the column was headed, Theatreland's
Happiest Newly-Weds! The photograph was of Kitty and
Walter in their wedding-suits.
I gazed at it in stupefaction for a moment, then I placed my
hand over the page and gave a cry - a quick, sharp,
agonised cry, as if the paper was hot and had burned me.
The cry became a low, ragged moan that went on, and on,
until I wondered that I had breath enough left to make it.
Soon I heard footsteps on the stairs: Mrs Best was at the
door, calling my name in curiosity and fear.
At that I ceased my racket, and became a little calmer: I did
not want her in my room, prying into my grief or offering
useless words of comfort. I called to her that I was quite all
right -that I had had a dream, merely, which had upset me;
and after a moment I heard her take her leave. I looked
again at the paper on my knee, and read the story which
accompanied the photograph. It said that Walter and Kitty
had married at the end of March, and honeymooned on the
Continent; that Kitty was currently resting from the stage,
but was expected to return to the halls - in an entirely new
act, and with Walter as her partner - in the autumn. Her old
partner, it said, Miss Nan King, who had been taken ill
whilst playing at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, was busy
with plans for a new career of her own. . .
Reading this I felt a sudden, sickening desire not to moan,
or weep — but to laugh. I put my fingers to my lips and
held them shut, as if to stem a tide of rising vomit. I had not
laughed in what seemed to be a hundred years or more; I
feared more than anything to hear the sound of my own
mirth now, for I knew it would be terrible.
When this fit had passed, I turned again to the paper. I had
wanted at first to destroy it, to tear or crumple it and cast it
on the fire. Now, however, I felt I could not let it from my
sight. I ran a finger-nail around the edge of the article, then
tore, slowly and neatly, where I had scored. The paper that
was left over I did cast into the grate; but the slip of
newsprint that bore Kitty and Walter's wedding-portrait I
held carefully, in the palm of my hand - as carefully as if it
were a moth's wing that might tarnish with too much
fingering. After a moment's thought I stepped to the
looking-glass. There was a gap between the glass itself and
the frame which held it, and into this I placed one edge of
the piece of paper. Here it was held fast in space, and cut
across my own reflection - unmissable, in that tiny room,
from any vantage-point.
Perhaps I was a little feverish; yet my head felt clearer than
it had in a month and a half. I gazed at the photograph, and
then at myself. I saw that I was wasted and grey, that my
eyes were swollen and purpled with shadows. My hair,
which I had loved before to keep so trim and sleek, was
long and filthy; my lips were bitten almost to the blood; my
frock was stained, and rancid at the armpits. They, I thought
- the smiling couple in the photograph — they had done this
to me!
But for the first time in all those long, miserable weeks, I
thought too, what a fool I had been, to let them.
I turned my head away, then and stepped to the door, and
gave a shout for Mary. When she came running, breathless
and a little nervous, I told her I wanted a bath, and soap,
and towels. She looked at me rather strangely -I had never
called for such a thing before - then she ran to the
basement, and soon there came the thump of the tub upon
the stairs as she hauled it up behind her, and the clatter of
pans and kettles in the kitchen. Soon, too, Mrs Best
emerged from her parlour, disturbed once again by the
noise. When I explained my sudden longing to bathe she
said, 'Oh Miss Astley, now is that really wise?', and looked
pale and shaken. I believe she thought I intended to drown
myself, or cut my wrists into the water.
I did, of course, neither. Instead I sat for an hour in the
steaming tub, gazing into the fireplace or at Kitty's picture,
gently massaging the life back into my aching limbs and
joints with a piece of soap and flannel. I washed my hair
and cleaned the muck from my eyes; the flesh beneath my
ears and behind my knees, in the crooks of my arms and
between my legs, I rubbed till it was red and stinging.
At last I think I dozed; and as I did so I had a strange,
unsettling vision.
I remembered a woman from Whitstable - an old neighbour
of ours - of whom I had not thought in years. She had died
while I was still a child, quite unexpectedly, and of a
peculiar condition. Her heart, the doctors said, had
hardened. The outer skin of it had grown leathery and
tough; its valves had turned sluggish, then had begun to
falter in their pumping, then ceased entirely. Save a little
tiredness and breathlessness there had been no warning; the
heart had worked away on its private, fatal, project, at its
own secret pace - then stopped.
This story had thrilled and terrified my sister and me, when
we first heard it. We were young and well cared for; the
idea that one of our organs - our most vital organ, at that might baulk at its natural role, might conspire with itself to
choke, rather than to nurture, us, seemed an appalling one.
For a week after the woman's death we talked of nothing
else. At night, in bed, we would lie trembling; we would
rub and worry at our ribs with sweating fingers, conscious
of the unemphatic pulse beneath, terrified that the flimsy
rhythm would falter or slow, certain that - like hers, our
poor, dead, unsuspecting neighbour's - our hearts were
stealthily hardening, hardening, in the tender red cavities of
our breasts.
Now, waking to the reality of the cooling tub, the colourless
room, the photograph upon the wall, I found my fingers
once again upon my breast-bone, probing and chafing,
searching for the thickening organ behind it. This time,
however, it seemed to me that I found it. There was a
darkness, a heaviness, a stillness at the very centre of me,
that I had not known was growing there, but which gave
me, now, a kind of comfort. My breast felt tight and sore but I didn't writhe, or sweat, beneath the pain of it, rather, I
crossed my arms over my ribs, and embraced my dark and
thickened heart like a lover.
Perhaps, even as I did it, Walter and Kitty were walking
together, on a street in France or Italy; perhaps he leaned to
touch her, as I touched myself; perhaps they kissed; perhaps
they lay in a bed ... I had thought such things a thousand
times, and wept and bitten my lips to think them; but now I
gazed at the photograph and felt my misery stiffen, as my
heart had stiffened, with rage and frustration. They walked
together, and the world smiled to see it! They embraced on
the street, and strangers were glad! While all the time I
lived pale as a worm, cast out from pleasure, from comfort
and ease.
I rose from the bath, all heedless of the spilling water, and
took up the photograph again; but this time I crushed it. I
gave a cry, I paced the floor: but it was not with
wretchedness that I paced, it was as if to try out new limbs,
to feel my whole self shift and snap and tingle with life. I
hauled open the window of my room, and leaned out into
the dark - into the never-quite-dark of the London night,
with its sounds and its scents that, for so long, I had been
shut from. I thought, I will go out into the world again; I
will go back into the city - they have kept me from it long
But oh! how terrible it was, making my way into the streets
next morning - how busy I found them, how dirty and
crowded and dazzling and loud! I had lived for a year and a
half in London, and called it my own. But when I walked in
it before, it was with Kitty or Walter; often, indeed, we had
not walked at all, but taken carriages and cabs. Now, for all
that I had borrowed a hat and a jacket of Mary's to make me
seemly, I felt as though I might as well be stumbling
through Clerkenwell in no clothes at all. Part of it was my
nervous fear that I would turn a corner and see a face I
knew, a face to remind me of my old life, or - worst of all Kitty's face, tilted and smiling as she walked on Walter's
arm. This fear made me falter and flinch, and so I was
jostled worse than ever, and had curses thrown at me. The
curses seemed as sharp as nettle-stings, and set me
Then again, I was stared at and called after - and twice or
thrice seized and stroked and pinched - by men. This, too,
had not happened in my old life; perhaps, indeed, if I had
had a baby or a bundle on me now, and was walking
purposefully or with my gaze fixed low, they might have let
me pass untroubled. But, as I have said, I walked fitfully,
blinking at the traffic about me; and such a girl, I suppose,
is a kind of invitation to sport and dalliance . . .
The stares and the strokings affected me like the curses:
they made me shake. I returned to Mrs Best's and turned the
key in my door; then I lay upon my rancid mattress and
shivered and wept. I had thought myself brilliant with new
life and promise, but the streets that I thought would
welcome me had only cast me back into my former misery.
Worse, they had frightened me. How, I thought, will I bear
it? How will I live? Kitty had Walter now; Kitty was
married! But I was poor and alone and uncared for. I was a
solitary girl, in a city that favoured sweethearts and
gentlemen; a girl in a city where girls walked only to be
gazed at.
I had discovered it, that morning. I might have learned it
sooner, from all the songs I'd sung at Kitty's side.
I thought then what a cruel joke it was that I, who had
swaggered so many times in a gentleman's suit across the
stages of London, should now be afraid to walk upon its
streets, because of my own girlishness! If only I were a boy,
I thought wretchedly. If only I were really a boy . ..
Then I gave a start, and sat up. I remembered what Kitty
had said, that day in Stamford Hill - that I was too much
like a boy. I remembered Mrs Dendy's reaction, when I had
posed for her in trousers: She's too real. The very suit that I
had worn then -the blue serge suit that Walter had given me
on New Year's Eve - was here, beneath my bed, still
crumpled in the sailor's bag with all the other costumes that
I'd taken from the Brit, I slid from the mattress and drew the
bag free, and in a moment I had all the suits upon the floor.
They lay about me, impossible handsome and vivid in that
colourless room: all the shades and textures of my former
life, with all the scents and songs of the music hall, and my
old passion, in their seams and creases.
For a second I sat trembling: I feared the memories would
overcome me, and set me weeping again. I almost returned
the costumes to the bag - but then I took a breath, and
willed my hands to steady and my dampening eyes to dry. I
placed my hand upon my breast - upon the heaviness, and
the darkness, that had so strengthened me.
I picked up the blue serge suit and shook it. It was horribly
creased, but apart from that not damaged at all by its
confinement to the bag. I tried it on, with a shirt and a necktie. I had become so thin that the trousers sagged about my
waist; my hips were narrower, my breasts even shallower,
than before. All that spoilt the illusion of my being a boy
was the foolish, tapered jacket - but its seams had not been
cut, I saw, only tucked and sewn. There was a knife on the
mantel that I used to slice my bread; I seized it, and applied
it to the stitches. Soon the jacket was its old, masculine self
again. With my hair trimmed, I thought, and a pair of
proper boy's shoes upon my feet, anyone - even Kitty
herself! - might meet me on the streets of London, and
never know me for a girl, at all.
There were one or two obstacles to be overcome, of course,
before I could begin to put my daring plan into practice.
Firstly, I must properly reacquaint myself with the city: it
took another week of wandering every day about the streets
of Farringdon and St Paul's, before I could accept the
jostling and the roars, and the stares of the men, without
smarting. Then there was the problem of where - if I really
was to stroll about in costume -I should change. I did not
want to live as a boy full-time; nor did I want, just yet, to
give up my room at Mrs Best's. I could imagine that lady's
face, however, if I presented myself before her one day in a
pair of trousers. She would think that I had lost my mind,
entirely; she might call for a doctor or a policeman. She
would certainly throw me out - and then I would be
homeless again. I didn't want that, at all.
I needed somewhere, away from Smithfield; I needed, in
fact, a dressing-room. But so far as I knew, there were no
such places for hire. The gay girls of the Haymarket, I
believe, transformed themselves in the public lavatories of
Piccadilly - put their make-up on at the wash-hand basins,
and changed into their gaudy frocks while the latch on the
door said Occupied. This seemed to me a sensible scheme but hardly one that I could copy, since it would blue my
project, rather, to be seen emerging from a ladies' lavatory
in a suit of serge and velvet and a boater.
It was indeed amidst the gay life of the West End, however,
that I at last found the answer to the problem. I had begun
to walk, each day, as far as Soho; and I had noticed there
the tremendous number of houses bearing signs that
advertised Beds Let By The Hour. In my naivety I
wondered at first, who would want to sleep there, for an
hour? Then, of course, I realised that no one would: the
rooms were for the girls to bring their customers to; to lie
abed in, certainly — but not to sleep. I stood one day at a
coffee-stall in the mouth of an alley off Berwick Street, and
watched the entrance to one of these houses. There was, I
saw, a constant flow of men and women over its threshold,
and no one paid the slightest heed to any of them save the
leering old woman who sat in a chair at the door, taking
their coins — and her alertness lasted only until she had
palmed her pennies and handed her customers their key. I
believe a pantomime horse could have sashayed over that
step with a harlot's hand upon its bridle and — so long as
the horse had its coin at the ready - no one would have
stopped their business to turn and look . . .
A few days later, therefore, I put my costume in a bag,
presented myself at the house, and asked for a room. The
old woman looked me over and grinned, quite mirthlessly;
then, when I gave her my shilling, she thrust a key at me,
and nodded me into the darkened passageway behind her.
The key was sticky; the handle of my chamber was sticky;
indeed, the house was entirely horrible - damp and stinking,
and with walls as thin as paper, so that, unpacking my bag
and straightening my costume, I heard all the business from
the rooms above, below, and on either side of it - all the
grunts and slaps and giggles, and pounding mattresses.
I changed very quickly, growing all the time, with every
grunt and titter, less certain and less brave. But when I
gazed at myself - there was'a looking-glass, with a crack
across it, and blood in the crack - when I gazed at myself at
last, I smiled, and knew my plan was a good one. I had
borrowed a flat-iron from my landlady's kitchen, and
pressed the suit free of all its creases; I had given my hair a
trim with a pair of sewing-shears - now I smoothed it flat
with spittle. I left my dress and purse upon a chair, went out
upon the landing, and locked the door behind me - my new
dark heart, all the time, beating fast as a clock. As I had
expected, the old bawd on the step barely raised her eyes as
I went past her; and so, a little hesitantly, I began the walk
down Berwick Street. With every glance that came my way,
I flinched; at any moment I expected the cry to be let up: 'A
girl! There is a girl, here, in boy's clothing!' But the glances
did not settle on me: they only slithered past me, to the girls
behind. There was no cry; and I began to walk a little
straighter. At St Luke's Church, on the corner, a man
brushed by me with a barrow, calling, 'All right, squire!"
Then a woman with a frizzed fringe put her hand upon my
arm, and tilted her head and said: 'Well now, pretty boy,
you look like a lively one. Fancy payin' a visit, to a nice
little place I know . . . ?'
The success of that first performance made me bold. I
returned to Soho for another turn, and walked further; and
then I went again, and then again ... I became quite a
regular at the Berwick Street knocking-shop - the madam
kept a room there for me, three days a week. She early on
found out the purpose of my visits, of course - though, from
a certain narrowing of her gaze when she dealt with me, I
think she was never quite sure if I were a girl come to her
house to pull on a pair of trousers, or a boy arrived to
change out of his frock. Sometimes, I was not sure myself.
For on every visit I found some new trick to better my
impersonation. I called at a barber's shop, and had my old
effeminate locks quite clipped away. I bought shoes and
socks, singlets and drawers and combinations. I
experimented with bandages in an effort to get the subtle
curves of my bosom more subtle still; and at my groin I
wore a handkerchief or a glove, neatly folded, to simulate
the bulges of a modest little cock.
I could not say that I was happy - you must not think that I
was ever happy, now. I had spent too many miserable
weeks at Mrs Best's to be anything other than wretched in
my room there: I was bleached of hope and colour, like the
wallpaper. But London, for all my weeping, could never
wash dim; and to walk freely about it at last - to walk as a
boy, as a handsome boy in a well-sewn suit, whom the
people stared after only to envy, never to mock - well, it
had a brittle kind of glamour to it, that was all I knew, just
then, of satisfaction.
'Let Kitty see me now,' I would think. 'She would not have
me when I was a girl - so let her only see me now!' And I
remembered a book that Mother had had once from the
library, in which a woman, cast out, returned to her home to
care for her children in the guise of a nurse. If only I could
meet Kitty once again, I thought, and woo her as a man and then reveal myself, to break her heart, as she had
broken mine!
But though I thought it, I made no attempt to contact her;
and the possibility of accidentally meeting her - of seeing
her with Walter - still made me shake. Even when June
came, and then July, and she must surely have returned
from her gay honeymoon, I never saw her name on any
poster outside any hall or theatre; and I never bought a
theatrical paper, to look for it there - so never learned how
she fared, as Walter's wife. The only glimpses I ever had of
her were in my dreams. In those she was still sweet and
lovely, still calling my name and offering me her mouth to
kiss; but still, at the last, there would come Walter's arm
about her freckled shoulders, and she would turn her guilty
eyes from me, to him.
I did not wake weeping from such dreams now, however; I
would only let them prick me back to Berwick Street. They
seemed, I thought, to lend a brilliance to my disguise.
How very fine it was, however, I did not realise until one
night, in August, at the hot end of the summer, as I idled in
the Burlington Arcade.
It was about nine o'clock. I had been walking, but now
stood before the window of a tobacconist's shop, and was
gazing at the goods on show - at the cases and cigartrimmers, the silver toothpicks and the tortoiseshell combs.
The month had been a warm one. I was wearing not the
blue serge suit, but the costume I had worn to sing the song
called 'Scarlet Fever' - a guardsman's uniform, with a neat
little cap. I had unfastened the button at my throat, to let the
air in.
As I stood there I became aware at last of the presence of a
fellow at my side. He had joined me at the window, and
seemed slowly to have inched his way towards me; now he
was really very close indeed — so close that I could feel the
warmth of his arm against my own, and smell the soap on
him. I didn't turn to examine his face; I could see that his
shoes, however, were highly polished and rather fine.
After a minute or two of silence, he spoke: 'A pleasant
Still I didn't look round, only agreed - all guilelessly - that it
was. There was another silence.
'You are admiring the display, perhaps?' he went on then. I
nodded - now I did turn to glance at him - and he looked
pleased. Then we are kindred spirits, I can tell!' He had the
voice of a gentleman, but kept his tone rather low. 'Now,
I'm not a smoker; and yet I find myself quite unable to
resist the lure of a really good tobacconist's. The cigars, the
brushes, the nail-clippers . . .' He gestured with his hand.
'There is something so very masculine about a tobacconist's
shop - don't you think?' His voice, at the last, had dipped to
little more than a murmur. Now he said in the same tone but
very fast: 'Are you up for it, Private?'
His words made me blink. 'Pardon?'
He looked about him with an eye that was quick, practised,
smooth as a well-oiled castor; then he glanced back to me.
'Are you up for a lark? Have you a room we might go to?'
'I don't know what you mean,' I said - although, to be frank,
I felt the stirrings of an idea.
He, at least, must have thought that I was teasing. He
smiled, and licked at his moustaches. 'Don't you, now. And
I thought all you guardsmen fellows knew the game all
right 'Not me,' I said primly. 'I only joined up last week.' He
smiled again. 'A raw recruit! And you've never done it with
another lad, I suppose? A handsome fellow like you?' I
shook my head. 'Well' - he swallowed - 'won't you do it
now, with me?'
'Do what?' I said. Again there was that swift, welllubricated glance.
'Put your pretty arse-hole at my service - or your pretty lips,
perhaps. Or simply your pretty white hand, through the slit
in my breeches. Whatever, soldier, you prefer; only cease
your teasing, I beg you. I'm as hard as a broom-handle, and
aching for a spend.'
Through all this astonishing exchange our outward show of
gazing into the tobacconist's window had barely been
disturbed. He had continued to murmur, and made all his
lewd proposals in the same swift undertone, his moustaches
hardly lifting to let the words out. Any stranger looking on,
I thought, would think us two quite unconnected fellows,
lost in our own worlds.
The thought made me smile. In the same humouring tone as
before, I said: 'How much, then, will you give me for it?'
At that, his face took on a cynical expression, as if he had
expected no better of me; but behind the hardness, too, I
caught a flash of heat - as if he wouldn't really have wanted
me any other way. He said, 'A sovereign, for a suck or for a
Robert' - he meant, of course, a Robert Browning. 'Half a
guinea for a dubbing.'
I made to shake my head - to tilt my cap to him and move
away, with the joke quite finished. But in his impatience he
half-turned, and I caught a gleam of something at his
middle. It was a fat, gold watch-chain. The waistcoat it
swung from was striped and rather flash. And when I
looked again at the man's face - there was light upon it,
now, from the lamp at the window - I saw that his whiskers
and his hair were gingerish and thick. His eyes were brown,
his cheeks rather hollow; but for all that, he looked quite
unmistakably like Walter. Like Walter, whom Kitty lay
with and kissed.
The idea had a peculiar effect on me. I spoke - but it was as
if someone else were doing the speaking, not me. I said:
'All right. I'll do it. I'll - touch you; for a sov.'
He grew business-like. When I stepped away I felt him
linger a moment at the window, then follow. I went not to
my old knocking-shop - I had only the most confused sense
of what I was about, but knew I oughtn't to get stuck in a
room with him, and risk having him opt for the Robert after
all - but to a little court nearby, where there was a nook,
above a grating, which the gay girls used as a lavatory. As I
approached it, indeed, a woman emerged, pressing her
skirts between her legs to dry herself: she gave me a wink.
When she had gone, I stood waiting; and a moment later the
man appeared. He had a newspaper shielding the fork of his
trousers, and when he took the paper away I saw a bulge
there the size of a bottle. I had a moment of panic; but then
he came and stood before me, and looked expectant. When
I began to pull at his buttons, he closed his eyes.
I got his cock out, and studied it: I had never seen one
before, so close, and - no disrespect to the gent concerned it seemed quite monstrous. But there are always jokes about
such things in the music hall: I had a pretty good idea of
how they worked. Seizing hold of it, I began - very
inexpertly, I am sure, though he didn't seem to mind - to
pump it.
'How thick and long it is,' I said then -I had heard that it
was every man's ambition to be spoken to thus, at such
moments. The fellow gave a sigh, and opened his eyes.
'Oh, I do wish you would kiss me there,' he whispered.
'Your mouth is such a perfect one - quite like a girl's.'
I slowed my rhythm, and took another look at his straining
cock; and again, when I knelt, it was as if it were someone
else who was kneeling, not myself. I thought, This is how
Walter tastes!
Afterwards I spat his spendings out upon the cobbles, and
he thanked me very graciously.
'Perhaps,' he said, buttoning himself up, 'perhaps I shall see
you again, in the same spot?'
I could not answer him - the fact was, I felt almost ready to
weep. He handed me my sovereign; then, after a moment's
hesitation, he stepped to me and kissed my cheek. The
gesture made me flinch; and when he felt the shudder, he
misunderstood, and looked wistful.
'No,' he said, 'you don't like that, you soldier-boys, do you?'
His tone was strange; when I studied him, I saw that his
eyes were gleaming.
His excitement had stirred me to strangeness, before; his
emotion, now, made me terribly thoughtful. When he
turned and left the court, I remained there, trembling - not
with sadness, but with a creeping kind of relish. The man
had looked like Walter; I had pleasured him, in some queer
way, for Kitty's sake; and the act had made me sicken. But
he was not like Walter, who might take his pleasure where
he chose it. His pleasure had turned, at the last, to a kind of
grief; and his love was a love so fierce and so secret it must
be satisfied, with a stranger, in a reeking court like this. I
knew about that kind of love. I knew how it was to bare
your palpitating heart, and be fearful as you did so that the
beats should come too loudly, and betray you.
I had kept my heart-beats smothered; and had been
betrayed, anyway.
And now I had betrayed another, like myself.
I put away the gentleman's sovereign, and walked to
Leicester Square.
This was one place which, in all my careless West End
wanderings, I had tended to avoid or pass through swiftly: I
was always mindful of the first trip I had made there, with
Kitty and Walter, and it was not a memory I cared, very
often, to revisit. Tonight, however, I walked there rather
purposefully. I went to the statute of Shakespeare, where
we had stood that time, and I leaned before it, gazing at the
view that we had looked on then. I remembered Walter
saying that we were at the very heart of London, and did I
know what it was that made that great heart beat? Variety! I
had looked around me that afternoon and seen, astonished,
what I thought was all the world's variety, brought together
in one extraordinary place. I had seen rich and poor,
splendid and squalid, white man and black man, all bustling
side by side. I had seen them make a vast harmonious
whole, and been thrilled to think that I was about to find my
own particular place in it, as Kitty's friend.
How had my sense of the world been changed, since then! I
had learned that London life was even stranger and more
various than I had ever thought it; but I had learned too that
not all its great variety was visible to the casual eye; that
not all the pieces of the city sat together smoothly, or
graciously, but rather rubbed and chafed and jostled one
another, and overlapped; that some, out of fear, kept
themselves hidden, and only exposed themselves to those
upon whose sympathies they could be sure. Now, all
unwittingly, I had been marked out by one such secret
element, and claimed by it as a member.
I looked into the crowds that passed me by on every side.
There were three hundred, four hundred, perhaps five
hundred men there. How many of them were like the
gentleman whose parts I had just fingered? Even as I
wondered it I saw one fellow gaze my way, deliberately and then another.
Perhaps there had been many such looks since I had
returned to the world as a boy; but I had never noticed them
or grasped their import. Now, however, I grasped it very
well — and I trembled again, as I did so, with satisfaction
and spite. I had first donned trousers to avoid men's eyes; to
feel myself the object of these men's gazes, however, these
men who thought I was like them, like that — well, that
was not to be pestered; it was to be, in some queer way,
For a week or two I continued to wander, and to watch, and
to learn the ways and gestures of the world into which I had
stumbled. Walking and watching, indeed, are that world's
keynotes: you walk, and let yourself be looked at; you
watch, until you find a face or a figure that you fancy; there
is a nod, a wink, a shake of the head, a purposeful stepping
to an alley or a rooming-house ... At first, as I have said, I
took no part in these exchanges, but only studied others at
them, and received a thousand questing glances on my own
account — some of which I held, rather teasingly, but most
of which I turned aside, after a second, with a show of
carelessness. But then, one afternoon, I was approached
once again by a gentleman who, it seemed to me, bore some
slight resemblance to Walter. He wanted my hand upon
him, merely, and to have a string of lewd endearments
whispered in his ears as I dubbed him off — it didn't seem
like much. If I hesitated, I don't believe he saw. I named my
terms - a sovereign, again - and led him to the nook where I
had served his predecessor. His cock seemed rather small;
again, however, I said how thick and fine it was.
'You're a beautiful boy,' he whispered to me afterwards.
There was no trouble over the coin.
Thus easily - as easily, and fatefully, as I had first begun
my music-hall career - thus easily did I refine my new
impersonations, and become a renter.
Chapter 9
It might seem a curious kind of leap to make, from musichall masher to renter. In fact, the world of actors and
artistes, and the gay world in which I now found myself
working, are not so very different. Both have London as
their proper country, the West End as their capital. Both are
a curious mix pf magic and necessity, glamour and sweat.
Both have their types - their ingenues and grandes dames,
their rising stars, their falling stars, their bill-toppers, their
hacks . . .
All this I learned, slowly but steadily, in the first few weeks
of my apprenticeship, just as I had learned my music-hall
trade at Kitty's side. Luckily for me, I found a friend and
adviser - a boy with whom I fell into conversation late one
night, as we sheltered together from a sudden shower in the
doorway of a building on the edge of Soho Square. He was
a very girlish type - what they call a true mary-anne - and,
like many of them, he gave himself a girl's name: Alice.
'That's my sister's name!' I said, when he told me, and he
smiled: it was his sister's name, too - only his sister, he said,
was dead. I said I didn't know if mine was dead or not, and
didn't care; and this did not surprise him.
This Alice was, I guessed, about my age. He was as pretty
as a girl - prettier, indeed, than most girls (including me),
for he had glossy black hair and a heart-shaped face, and
eye-lashes impossibly long and dark and thick. He had
rented, he said, since he was twelve; renting, now, was the
only life he knew, but he liked it well enough. 'It's better,
anyway,' he said, 'than working in an office or a shop. I
believe that, if I had to work in the same little room all day,
perched on the same little stool and staring at the same dull
faces, I would go mad, just mad!'
When he asked for my history, I told him that I had come
up to London from Kent, that I had been treated rather
badly by someone, and was now forced to find my living on
the streets; all of which was true enough, in its way. I
believe he felt sorry for me - or maybe it was just the
coincidence of our sisters' names that warmed him to me anyway, he began to look out a little for me, and to give me
tips and cautions. We would sometimes meet up at the
coffee-stalls of Leicester Square, and have a little boast, or
grumble, about our fortunes. And while we talked his eyes
would be darting, darting, darting all about, looking for new
customers, or old ones, or for sweethearts and friends.
'Polly Shaw,' he would say, inclining his head as some
slight young man tripped by us, smiling. 'A daisy, an
absolute daisy, but never let her talk you into lending her a
quid.' Or, less kindly: 'My eyes! but doesn't that puss
always land with her nose in the cream!' as another boy
drew up in a hansom, and disappeared into the Alhambra on
the arm of a gentleman with a red silk lining to his cape.
Finally, of course, his drifting gaze would settle and harden,
and he would give a little nod, or wink, and hastily put
down his cup. 'Whoops!' he would say, 'I see a porter who
wants to punch Sweet Alice's ticket. Adieu, cherie. A
thousand kisses on your marvellous eyes!' He would touch
his fingertip to his lips, then lightly press it to the sleeve of
my jacket; then I would see him picking his careful way
across the crowded square to the fellow who had gestured
to him.
When he asked me, early on, what my name was, I
answered: Kitty.
It was Sweet Alice who introduced me to the various renter
types, and explained to me their costumes, and their habits,
and their skills. Foremost amongst them, of course, were
the mary-annes, the other boys like himself, who could be
seen strolling up and down the Haymarket at any time of
the day or night, with their lips rouged and their throats
powdered, and clad in trousers as tight and revealing,
almost, as a ballerina's fleshings. These boys took their
customers to lodging-houses and hotels; their aim was to be
spotted by some manly young gentleman or lord and set up
as his mistress in apartments of their own. More succeeded
in this ambition than you might think.
Then again, there were the more ordinary-looking fellows,
the clerks and shop-boys: they rather despised the maryannes, and went with gentlemen - or so they claimed - for
the money rather than for the thrill of it; some of them, I
believe, even kept wives and sweethearts. The aristocracy
or leading men of this particular branch of the profession
were the guardsmen: it had been as one of these that I had
costumed myself, when I had donned that scarlet uniform all innocently, of course, for I had known nothing of their
reputation in this direction, then. These men, I was assured,
were cock-handlers and -suckers, almost exclusively. They
occasionally obliged a gentleman with a poke or two, when
they were feeling friendly; but they never let their own
parts be fondled or kissed. They were proud to the point of
mania, Sweet Alice said, on that score.
My own renter persona was, of necessity, a rather curious
mixture of types. Never a very virile boy, I held no appeal
for the kind of gentleman who liked a rough hand through
the slit of his drawers, or a bit of a slap in the shadows;
equally, however, I could never afford to let myself be seen
as one of those lily-white lads whom the working-men go
for, and make rather free with. Then again, I was choosy.
There were many fellows with curious appetites in the
streets round Leicester Square; but not all of them were the
sort I was after. Most men, to be frank, will step aside with
a renter as you or I might call into a public-house, on our
way home from the market: they take their pleasure, give a
belch, and think no more of it than that. But still there are
always some - they are gentlemen, for the most part; I
learned to spot them from afar - who are fretful, or wistful,
or romantic - who could, like the fellow from the
Burlington Arcade, be brought to kiss me, or thank me, or
even weep over me, as I was handling them.
And, as they did so - as they strained and gasped, and
whispered their desires to me in some alley or court or
dripping lavatory stall — I would have to turn my face
away to hide my smiles. If they favoured Walter, then so
much the better. If they did not — well, they were all gents
and (whatever their own opinion on the matter) with their
trousers unbuttoned they all looked the same.
I never felt my own lusts rise, raising theirs. I didn't even
need the coins they gave me. I was like a person who,
having once been robbed of all he owns and loves, turns
thief himself- not to enjoy his neighbours' chattels, but to
spoil them. My one regret was that, though I was daily
giving such marvellous performances, they had no
audience. I would gaze about me at the dim and dreary
place in which my gentleman and I leaned panting, and
wish the cobbles were a stage, the bricks a curtain, the
scuttling rats a set of blazing footlights. I would long for
just one eye - just one! - to be fixed upon our couplings: a
bold and knowing eye that saw how well I played my part,
how gulled and humbled was my foolish, trustful partner.
Bat that - considering the circumstances - seemed quite
All continued smoothly for, perhaps, six months or so: my
colourless life at Mrs Best's went on, and so did my trips to
the West End, and my renting. My little stash of money
dwindled, and finally disappeared; and now, since renting
was all I knew and cared for, I began to live entirely from
what I earned upon the streets. I still had had no word of
Kitty - not a word! I concluded at last that she must have
gone abroad, to try her luck with Walter - to America,
perhaps, where we had planned to go. My months upon the
music-hall stage seemed very distant to me now, and quite
unreal. Once or twice on my trips around the city I saw
someone I knew, from the old days - a fellow with whom
we'd shared a bill at the Paragon, a wardrobe-mistress from
the Bedford, Camden Town. One night I leaned against a
pillar in Great Windmill Street and watched as Dolly
Arnold -who had played Cinderella to Kitty's Prince, at the
Britannia -made her exit from the door of the Pavilion and
was helped into a carriage. She looked at me, and blinked then looked away again. Perhaps she thought she knew my
face; perhaps she thought I was a boy that she had worked
with; perhaps she only thought I was a miserable ningle,
haunting the shadows in search of a gent. Anyway, she did
not see Nan King in me, I know it; and if I had an urge to
cross to her and reveal myself and ask for news of Kitty, it
lasted for only a moment; and in that moment the driver
shook his horses into life, and the carriage rumbled off.
No, my only contact with the theatre now was a renter. I
discovered that the music halls of Leicester Square - the
very same halls which Kitty and I had gazed at, all
hopefully, two years before - were rather famous in the
renter world as posing-grounds and pick-up spots. The
Empire, in particular, was always thick with sods: they
strolled side-by-side with the gay girls of the promenade, or
stood, in little knots, exchanging gossip, comparing
fortunes, greeting one another with flapping hands and
high, extravagant voices. They never looked at the stage,
never cheered or applauded, only gazed at themselves in the
mirror-glass or at each other's powdered faces, or - more
covertly - at the gentlemen who, rapidly or rather
lingeringly, passed them by.
I loved to walk with them, and watch them, and be watched
by them in turn. I loved to stroll about the Empire - the
handsomest hall in England, as Walter had described it, the
hall to which Kitty had longed so ardently so uselessly! for
an invitation - I loved to stroll about it with my back to its
glorious golden stage, my costume bright beneath the
ungentle glare of its electric chandeliers, my hair gleaming,
my trousers bulging, my lips pink, my figure and pose
reeking, as the gay boys say, of lavender, their import bold
and unmistakable - but false. The singers and comedians I
never looked at once. I had finished with that world,
All, as I have said, went smoothly; then, in the first few
warm weeks of 1891 - that is, a year and more after my
flight from Kitty - there came a bothersome interruption to
my little routine.
I returned to the knocking-shop after an evening of rather
heavy renting to find the old proprietress missing, her chair
overturned, and the door to my chamber splintered and
flung wide. What had happened I never found out for sure;
it seemed that the madam had been taken or chased away though whether by a policeman or a rival bawd, no one
professed to know. Anyway, thieves had taken advantage of
her absence to steal into the house, to frighten and threaten
the girls and their customers, and help themselves to
anything that they could lift: the oozing mattresses and
rugs, the broken looking-glasses, the few rickety bits of
furniture - also my frocks, shoes, bonnet and purse. The
loss was not a great one to me; but it meant that I must go
home in my masculine attire -I was wearing the old Oxford
bags, and a boater - and attempt to reach my room at Mrs
Best's without her catching me.
It was quite late, and I walked very slowly to Smithfield, in
the hope that all the Bests might be abed and sleeping by
the time I got there - and, indeed, when I reached the house,
the windows were dark and all seemed still. I let myself in
and stepped silently up the stairs - horribly mindful of the
last time I had crept, noiselessly, through a slumbering
house, and all that the creeping had led to. Perhaps it was
the memory that made me blunder: for half-way up I put
my hand to my head - and my hat went soaring over the
banister to land with a thud in the passageway below. I
came, cursing, to a halt. I knew I must go down to fetch it;
just as I was about to turn and begin my descent, however, I
heard the creaking of a door and saw the bobbing glow of a
'Miss Astley -' It was my landlady's voice, sounding thin
and querulous in the darkness. 'Miss Astley, is that you?'
I didn't stop to answer her, but hurled myself up the
remaining stairs and ran into my room. With the door
closed behind me I tore the jacket from my shoulders and
the trousers from my legs, and stuffed them, with my shirt
and drawers, into the little curtained alcove where I hung
my clothes. I found myself a night-gown, and pulled it on;
as I fastened the buttons at the throat, however, I heard
what I had dreaded to hear: the sound of rapid, heavy
footsteps on the stairs, followed by a hammering at my door
and Mrs Best's voice, loud and shrill.
'Miss Astley! Miss Astley! It would oblige me if you would
open this door. I have found a peculiar item in the
downstairs passage, and believe that you have someone in
there as you should not!'
'Mrs Best,' I answered, 'what do you mean?'
'You know what I mean, Miss Astley. I am warning you. I
have my son with me!' She caught hold of the door-knob,
and shook it. Above our heads there were more footsteps:
the baby had been woken by the noise, and begun to cry.
I turned the key, and opened the door. Mrs Best, clad in a
night-dress and a tartan wrap, pushed past me, into the
room. Behind her, in a shirt and nightcap, stood her son. He
had a terrible complexion.
I turned to the landlady. She was gazing about her in
frustration. 'I know there is a gentleman in here
somewhere!' she cried. She pulled the covers from the bed,
then stopped to look beneath it. At last, of course, she
headed for the alcove. I darted to stop her, and she curled
her lip in satisfaction. 'Now we'll have him!' she said. She
reached past me and tweaked the curtain back, then stepped
away with a gasp. There were about four suits there, as well
as the one that I had just taken off. 'Why, you little
strumpet!' she cried. 'I believe you was planning a regular
'A horgy? A horgy?' I folded my arms. 'They're bits of
mending, Mrs Best. It's not a crime, is it, to take in sewing,
for gentlemen?'
She picked up the pair of underthings that I had so recently
kicked off, and sniffed at them. These drawers are still
warm!' she said. 'From the heat of your needle, I suppose
you'll be telling me? From the heat of his needle, more
like!' I opened my mouth - but could find no answer to
make her. While I hesitated she stepped to the window and
looked out of it. This, I suppose, is where they made their
escape. The villains! Well, they won't get far, that's for sure,
in their birthday suits!'
I looked again at her son. He was gazing at my ankles
where they showed beneath my night-gown.
'I'm sorry, Mrs Best,' I said. 'I won't do it again, I promise
'You certainly shan't do it again, in my house! I want you
out of here, Miss Astley, in the morning. I've always found
you a very peculiar tenant, I don't mind admitting - and
now, to go and try and play the hussy on me like this! I
won't have it; no, certainly I won't! I warned you when you
moved in.'
I bowed my head; she turned on her heel. Behind her, her
son at last gave me a sneer. Tart,' he said. Then he spat, and
followed his mother into the darkness.
Being not exactly overburdened with articles to pack, I was
out of the house next morning just as soon as I had washed.
Mrs Best curled her lip as I passed by her. Mary, however,
gazed at me with a kind of admiration in her eyes, as if
awed and impressed that I had proved myself so normal - so
spectacularly normal - at the last. I gave her a shilling, and
patted her hand. Then I took a final turn around Smithfield
Market. It was a warm morning, and the reek of the
carcases was terrible, the hum of flies about them as deep
and steady as the buzz of a motor; but for all that, I felt a
kind of bleak fondness for the place, which I had gazed at,
so often, in my weeks of madness.
I moved on at last, and left the flies to their breakfast. I had
only the vaguest ideas about where I should make for, but I
had heard that the streets around King's Cross were full of
rooming-houses, and thought perhaps that I might try my
luck up there. In the end, however, I did not get even so far
as that. In the window of a shop on the Gray's Inn Road I
saw a little card: Respectible Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger,
and an address. I gazed at it for a minute or so. The
Respectible was off-putting: I couldn't face another Mrs
Best. But there was something very appealing about that
Fe-Male. I saw myself in it - in the hyphen.
I memorised the address. It was for a road named Green
Street, which turned out to be wonderfully near - a narrow
little street off the Gray's Inn Road itself, with a well-kept
terrace on one side, and a rather grim-looking tenement on
the other. The number I sought was one of the houses, and
looked very pleasant, with a pot of geraniums upon the step
and, beside that, a three-legged cat, washing its face. The
cat gave a hop as I approached, and lifted its head for me to
I pulled on the bell, and was greeted by a kind-faced, whitehaired lady in an apron and slippers; she let me in at once
when I explained my visit, introduced herself as 'Mrs
Milne', then spent a moment fussing over the cat. While she
did so I looked about me, and blinked. The hallway was as
crowded with pictures, almost, as Mrs Dendy's old front
parlour. These pictures were not, however, theatrical in
theme; indeed, so far as I could make out, they had nothing
in common at all save the fact that each of them was very
brightly-hued. Most seemed rather cheap - some had
evidently been cut from books and papers, and pinned
frameless to the wall - but there were one or two rather
famous images. Above the umbrella-stand, for example,
hung a copy of that gaudy painting The Light of the World;
beneath it was an Indian picture, of a slender blue god
wearing spit-black on the eyes, and holding a flute. I
wondered whether Mrs Milne was perhaps some form of
religious maniac - a theosophist, or a Hindoo convert.
When she saw me looking at the walls, however, she smiled
in a most Christian-like way. 'My daughter's pictures,' she
said, as if that explained it all. 'She does like the colours.' I
nodded, then followed her up the stairs.
She took me directly to the room that was for rent. It was a
pleasant, ordinary kind of chamber, and everything in it was
clean. Its chief attraction was its window: this was long,
and split down the middle to form a pair of glass doors; and
these opened on to a little iron balcony, that overlooked
Green Street and faced the shabby tenement.
'It'll be eight shillings for the rent,' said Mrs Milne as I
gazed about me. I nodded. 'You're not the first girl that I've
seen,' she went on, 'but, to be honest, I was hoping for an
older lady - I thought perhaps a widow. My niece was here
until very recently, but had to leave us to get married. You
might be thinking of getting married yourself, rather soon?'
'Oh no,' I said.
'You've no young man?'
'Not one.'
That seemed to please her. She said, 'I am glad. You see, it
is just myself and my daughter here, and she is rather an
unusual, trusting sort of girl. I wouldn't like to have young
fellers, coming in and out..."
There's no young man,' I said firmly.
She smiled again; then seemed to hesitate. 'Might I ask might I - why you are leaving your present address?' At that
I hesitated - and her smile grew smaller.
To be truthful,' I said, 'there was a little bit of
unpleasantness with my landlady ..."
'Ah.' She stiffened a little, and I realised that in telling the
truth I had blundered.
'What I mean,' I began - but I could see her mind working.
What did she think? That my landlady had caught me
kissing her husband, probably.
'You see,' she began again, regretfully, 'my daughter . . .'
This daughter must be a beauty and a half, I thought - or
else a complete erotomaniac - if the mother is so eager to
keep her safe and close, away from young men's eyes. And
yet, just as I had been drawn to that mispelt card in the
shopkeeper's window, so, now, there was something about
the house and its owner that tugged at me, unaccountably.
I took a chance.
'Mrs Milne,' I said, 'the fact of it is I have a curious
occupation - a theatrical occupation, you could call it - that
obliges me sometimes to dress in gentlemen's suits. My
landlady caught me at it, and took against me. I know for
certain that, if I live here, I shall never bring a chap over
your threshold. You may wonder how I know that, but I can
only say, I do. I shan't ever get behind with my rent; I shall
keep myself to myself and you won't hardly know that I am
here at all. If you and Miss Milne will only not object to the
sight of a girl in a pair of bags and a neck-tie now and again
- well, then I think I might be the lodger you are seeking.'
I had spoken in earnest — more or less — and now Mrs
Milne looked thoughtful. 'Gentlemen's suits, you say,' she
said - not unkindly or incredulously, but with a rather
interested air. I nodded, then pulled at the cord of my bag
and drew out a jacket - it happened to be the top half of the
guardsman's uniform. I gave it a shake and held it up
against myself, rather hopefully. 'My eyes,' she said, folding
her arms, 'he's a beauty, in' he? Now my little girl would
like him.' She gestured to the door. 'If you'll permit me . . .
?' She stepped out on to the landing and gave a shout:
'Gracie!' I heard the sound of footsteps below. Mrs Milne
tilted her head. 'Now, she's a mote shy,' she said in a low
voice, 'but don't you pay no mind to her if she starts being
silly on you. It's just her way.' I smiled, uncertainly. In a
second Gracie had begun her ascent; a few seconds more,
and she was in the room and at her mother's side.
I had expected some extraordinary beauty. Grace Milne was
not beautiful - but she was, I saw at once, rather
extraordinary. Her age was hard to judge. She might, I
thought, have been anything between seventeen and thirty;
her hair, however, was as yellow and fine as flax, and hung
loose about her shoulders like a girl's. She was clad in an
odd assemblage of clothes - a short blue dress, and a yellow
pinafore, and beneath that gaudy stockings with clocks
upon them, and red velvet slippers. Her eyes were grey, her
cheeks very pale. Her features had a strange, smooth quality
to them, as if her face was a drawing to which someone had
halfheartedly taken a piece of india-rubber. When she spoke
her voice was thick and slightly braying. I realised then,
what I might have guessed before: that she was rather
I saw all this, of course, in less than a moment. Grace had
put her arm through her mother's and, on being introduced
to me, had indeed hung back rather shyly. Now, however,
she gazed with obvious delight at the jacket that I held
before me, and I could see that she was desperate to seize
its coloured sleeve and stroke it.
And after all, it was a lovely jacket. I asked her, 'Would you
like to try it on?'
She nodded, then glanced at her mother: 'If I might.' Mrs
Milne said she might. I raised the jacket for her to step into,
then moved around her to fasten the buttons. The scarlet
serge and the gold trim went bizarrely well with her hair,
her eyes, her dress and stockings.
'You look like a lady in a circus,' I said, as her mother and I
stood back to study her. 'A ring-master's daughter.' She
smiled - then took a clumsy bow. Mrs Milne laughed and
'May I keep it?' Gracie asked me then. I shook my head.
To be honest, Miss Milne, I don't believe that I can spare it.
Had I only two the same ..."
'Now Gracie,' said her mother, 'of course you can't keep it.
Miss Astley needs the costume for her theatricals.' Grace
pulled a face, but did not seem very seriously dismayed.
Mrs Milne caught my eye. 'She might borrow it, though,
mightn't she,' she whispered, 'from time to time . . . ?'
'She can borrow all my suits, all at once, so far as I care,' I
said; and when Grace looked up I gave her a wink, and her
pale cheeks pinked a little, and her head went down.
Mrs Milne gave a mild tut-tut, and folded her arms
complacently. 'I do believe that, after all, Miss Astley, you
will suit us very well.'
I moved in at once. That first afternoon I passed in
unpacking my few little things, with Gracie beside me
exclaiming over them all, and Mrs Milne bringing tea, and
then more tea, and cake. By supper-time I had become
'Nancy' to them both; and supper itself- which was a pie
and peas and gravy, and afterwards, blancmange in a mould
- was the first that I had eaten, at a family table, since my
last dinner at Whitstable just over a year before.
The next day, Gracie tried my suits, in every combination,
and her mother clapped. There were sausages for supper,
and later cake. The cake being eaten, I changed for Soho;
and when Mrs Milne saw me in my serge-and-velvet, she
clapped again. She had had a key cut for me, so that when I
came home late I should not wake them . . .
It was like rooming with angels. I could keep the hours I
liked, wear the costumes I chose, and Mrs Milne said
nothing. I could come home in a jacket crusted, at the
collar, with a man's rash spendings - and she would only
pluck it from my nervous hands, and wash it at the tap: 'I
never saw a girl so careless with her soup!' I could wake
wretched, plagued with memories, and she would pile my
breakfast plate the higher, asking nothing. She was as
simple, in her way, as her own simple daughter; she was
good to me for Grade's sake, because I liked her, and was
kind to her.
I was patient, for example, over the issue of Grace's interest
in the colourful. You could not have spent three minutes in
that house without noticing it; but after three days there I
began to sense a kind of system to her mania which, if I had
had routines of my own, like an ordinary girl, might have
proved rather maddening. When, on my first Wednesday
there, I went down to breakfast in a yellow waistcoat, Mrs
Milne flinched and said: 'Grade don't quite like to see
yellow in the house,' she said, 'on a Wednesday.' Three days
later, however, we had a custard for tea: food on a
Saturday, it seemed, must be yellow, or nothing . . .
Mrs Milne had grown so used to the fads, she had almost
ceased to notice them; and in time, as I have said, I grew
used to them, too - calling, 'What colour today, Grace?' as I
dressed in the mornings. 'May I wear my blue serge suit, or
must it be the Oxfords?' 'Shall we have gooseberries for
supper, or a Battenburg cake?' I didn't mind, it came to
seem a kind of game; and Grade's way was quite as valid a
philosophy, I thought, as many others. And her basic
passion, for the vivid and the bright, I understood very well.
For there were so many lovely colours in the city; and in a
sense she tutored me to look at them anew. As I strolled
about I would keep a watch for pictures and dresses that I
knew that she would like, then bring them home for her.
She had a number of huge albums, into which she pasted
cuttings and scraps: I would find her magazines and little
books, to worry at with her scissors; I would buy her
flowers from the flower-girls' stalls: violets, carnations,
lavender statice and blue forget-me-nots. When I presented
them to her - producing them with a flourish, from under
my coat, like a conjuror - she would flush with pleasure,
and perhaps dip me a playful little curtsey. Mrs Milne
would look on, pleased as anything, but shaking her head
and pretending to chide.
'Tut!' she would say to me. 'You will turn that girl's head
right round, one of these days, I swear it!' And I would
think for a second how queer it was that she - who had been
so careful to keep her daughter from the covetous glances
of fresh young men - should encourage Grace and me to
play at sweethearts, so blithely, and with such seeming
But it was impossible to think very hard about anything in
that household, where life was so even and idle and sweet.
And because, since losing Kitty, thinking was the
occupation I cared for least, this suited me best of all.
So the months slid by. My birthday arrived: I had not
marked its passing at all the year before; but now there
were gifts, and a cake with green candles. Christmas came,
bringing more presents, and a dinner. I remembered with
some small, insistent portion of my brain the two gay
Christmases that I had spent with Kitty; and then I thought
of my family. Davy, I supposed, would be married by now,
and possibly a father - that made me an aunt. Alice would
be twenty-five. They would all be celebrating the turning of
the year, today, without me -wondering, perhaps, where I
was, and how I did; and Kitty and Walter might be doing
the same. I thought: Let them wonder. When Mrs Milne
raised her glass at the dinner-table, and wished the three of
us all the luck of the Season and the New Year, I gave her a
smile, and then a kiss upon the cheek.
'What a Christmas!' she said. 'Here I am, with my two best
girls beside me. What a lucky day it was for me and Grace,
Nance, the day you knocked upon our door!' Her eyes
glistened a little; she had said this sort of thing before, but
never so feelingly. I knew what she was thinking. I knew
she had begun to look upon me as a kind of daughter - as a
sister, anyway, to her real daughter: a kindly older sister
who might be relied upon, perhaps, to care for Grade when
she herself was dead and gone . . .
The idea, at that moment, made me shiver - and yet I had no
other plans; no other family, now; no sister of my own; and
certainly no sweetheart. So, 'What a lucky day it was for
me,' I answered. 'If only everything might stay just as it is,
for ever!' Mrs Milne blinked her tears away and took my
soft white hand in her old, hardened one. Grade gazed at us,
pleased, but distracted by the splendours of the day, her hair
shining in the candle-light like gold.
That night I went as usual to Leicester Square. There are
gents there, looking for renters, even at Christmas.
The trade is poor, though, in the winter months. The fogs
and the early darkness are kind to the furtive; but no one
likes unbuttoning himself when there are icicles upon the
wall - nor did I much care for kneeling on slippery cobbles,
or wandering around the West End in a short jacket merely
for the sake of showing off my lovely bum and the roll of
the hankie at the fork of my trousers. I was glad to have a
home that was cosy: gay people go down like skittles in
January, with fevers and influenza, or worse; Sweet Alice
coughed all through that winter - said he was afraid he
should do it while he knelt to a gent, a bite his cock off.
As spring came again, however, the evenings warmed and
my curious gaslit career grew easier; but I, if anything,
grew lazier. Now, more often than I ventured out into the
streets, I kept at home in my room - not sleeping, only
lying, open-eyed, half-clothed; or smoking, while the night
grew thicker and still, and a candle burned low, and
trembled, and died. I took to throwing wide my windows to
let the voices of the city in: the clatter of cabs and vans
from the Gray's Inn Road; the hoots and the rattles and
hisses of steam, from King's Cross; snatches of quarrels and
confidences and greetings, from passers-by - 'Well now,
Jenny!'; Till Tuesday, till Tuesday ..." When the stifling
heat of June arrived I got into the habit of placing a chair on
my little balcony high above Green Street, and sitting there
long into the cooling night.
I passed about fifty nights like this that summer, and
daresay I could not distinguish so many as five of them
from all of their fellows. But one of those nights, I
remember very
I had set my chair as usual upon my balcony, but had turned
its back to the street and sat lazily straddling it, with my
arms across each other and my chin upon my arms. I was
wearing, I remember, plain linen trousers and a shirt left
open at the neck, and a little straw sailor-hat I had put on
against the strong late-afternoon sun, and forgotten to
remove. The room behind me I had let darken; I guessed
that, apart from the occasional dancing glow of my
cigarette tip, I must be quite invisible against its shadows.
My eyes were closed, I was thinking of nothing, when all at
once I heard music. Someone had begun to strum some
kind of sweet, twangy instrument -not a banjo, not a guitar and a lilting gypsy melody was playing upon the bare
evening breezes. Soon a woman's voice, high and
quavering, had risen to accompany it.
I opened my eyes to find the source of the sound; it came
not, as I had expected, from the street below, but from the
building opposite - the old tenement that had used to be so
grim and empty, and such a contrast to the pleasant little
terrace in which my landlady had her house. Labourers had
been at work upon it for a month and more, and I had been
dimly aware of them as they hammered and whistled and
leaned from ladders; now the building was spruce and
mended, hi all my time at Green Street the windows
opposite mine had been dark. Tonight, however, they were
thrown open, and the curtains behind them were drawn
quite wide. It was from here that the gay little melody was
issuing: the parted drapes gave me a perfect view of the
curious scene that was being enacted within.
The player of the instrument - it was, I now saw, a
mandolin - was a handsome young woman in a welltailored jacket, a white blouse, a neck-tie, and spectacles; I
put her down at once for a lady clerk or a college girl. As
she sang, she smiled; and when her voice fell short of the
higher notes, she laughed. She had tied a bunch of ribbons
to the neck of her mandolin, and these shook and
shimmered as she strummed it.
The little group of people to whom she sang, however, were
not quite so gay. A man, in a suit that was rather rough, sat
beside her, nodding with a fixed and hopeful smile; on his
knee he held a sweet little girl in a patched frock and apron,
whose hands he made to clap in approximate time to the
melody. At his shoulder leaned a boy, his hair shaved to a
stubble around his narrow neck and his large, flushed ears.
Behind him stood a tired-looking hard-faced woman - the
man's wife, I guessed - and she held another infant listlessly
at her breast. The final member of the party, a stocky girl in
a smartish jacket, was only partly visible beyond the edge
of the curtain. Her face was hidden, but I could see her
hands -which were slender and rather pale - with peculiar
clarity: they held a card or a pamphlet, which they flapped
in the still, warm air like a fan.
All of these figures were gathered around a table, upon
which stood a jar of flaccid little daisies and the remains of
an economical supper: tea and cocoa, cold meat and pickle,
and a cake. Despite the long faces and forced smiles, there
was something celebratory about the scene. It was, I
supposed, a sort of house-warming party - though I could
not fathom the relationship between the lady mandolinist
and the poor, drab little family to whom she played. Nor
was I sure about the other girl, with the pale hands; she, I
thought, could have belonged in either camp.
The tune changed, and I could sense the family growing
restless. I lit a cigarette and studied the scene: it was as
good a thing to watch, I thought, as any. At length the girl
behind the curtain ceased her intermittent fanning and rose.
Stepping carefully around the group, she approached the
window: it, like my own, opened on to a little balcony,
upon which she now stepped, and from which she surveyed,
with a mild glance and a yawn, the quiet street beneath.
There were not more than twelve yards between us, and we
were almost level; but, as I had guessed , I was only another
shadow against my own shadowy chamber, and she hadn't
noticed me. I, for my part, had still not seen her face. The
window and curtains framed her beautifully, but the light
was all from behind. It streamed through her hair, which
seemed curly as a corkscrew, and lent her a kind of flaming
nimbus, such as a saint might have in the window of a
church; her face, however, was left in darkness. I watched
her. When the music stopped, and there was a selfconscious smattering of applause and then a bit of desultory
chatter, still she kept her place on the balcony and didn't
look round.
At last my cigarette burned down, almost to my fingers, and
I cast it into the street below. She caught the gesture: gave a
start, then squinted at me, then grew stiff. Her confusion despite the darkness, I could see from the tips of her ears
that she flushed - disconcerted me, till I recollected my
gentleman's costume. She took me for some insolent
voyeur! The thought gave me an odd mixture of shame and
embarrassment and also, I must confess, pleasure. I took
hold of my boater and raised it, politely.
'G'night, sweetheart,' I said in a low, lazy tone. It was the
kind of thing rough fellows of the street - costers and roadmenders - said to passing ladies all the time. I don't know
why, just then, I thought to copy them.
The girl gave another twitch, then opened her mouth as if to
make me some rusty reply; at that moment, however, her
friend approached the window. She had a hat fixed to her
head, and was pulling on her gloves. She said, 'We must go,
Florence' - the name sounded very romantic, in the halflight. 'It is time for the children to be put to bed. Mr Mason
says he will walk with us as far as King's Cross.'
The girl gave not a glance more my way then, but turned
quickly into the room. Here she kissed the children, shook
the mother's hand, and politely took her leave; from my
place on the balcony I saw her, and her friend, and their
rough chaperon Mr Mason, quit the building and make their
way up towards the Gray's Inn Road. I thought she might
turn to see if I still watched but she did not; and why should
I mind it? With the lamplight at last turned upon her face I
had seen that she was not at all handsome.
I might have forgotten all about her, indeed, except that a
fortnight or so after I had watched her in the darkness, I saw
her again - but this time in daylight.
It was another warm day, and I had woken rather early. Mrs
Milne and Grace were out on a visit, and I had in
consequence nothing at all in the world to do, and no one to
please but myself. Before my money had all run out I had
bought myself a couple of decent frocks; and it was one of
those that I had put on, today. I had my old plait of false
hair, too: it looked wonderfully natural under the shadow of
the stiff brim of a black straw hat. I had a mind to make my
way to one of the parks -Hyde Park, I thought, then on
perhaps to Kensington Gardens. I knew men would pester
me along the way; but parks, I have found, are full of
women - full of nursemaids wheeling bassinets, and
governesses airing babies, and shop-girls taking their
lunches on the grass. Any of these, I knew, might be led
into a little conversation by a girl with a smile and a
handsome dress; and I had a fancy - a rather curious fancy for women's company that day.
It was in this mood, and with these plans, and in that
costume, that I saw Florence.
I recognised her at once, for all that I had seen so little of
her before. I had just let myself out of the house, and
lingered for a moment on the lowest step, yawning and
rubbing my eyes. She was emerging into the sunlight from
a passageway on the other side of Green Street, a little way
down on my left, and she was dressed in a jacket and skirt
the colour of mustard - it was this, struck by the sun and set
glowing, that had caught my eye. Like me, she had paused:
she had a sheet of paper in her hand, and seemed to be
consulting it. The passageway led to the tenement flats, and
I guessed she had been visiting the family that had held the
party. I wondered idly which way she would go. If she
moved towards King's Cross again, I should miss her.
At last she stowed the paper in a satchel that was slung,
crosswise, over her chest, and turned - to her left, towards
me. I kept to my step and, as I had before, I watched her;
slowly she drew level with me until, once again, there was
no more than the width of the road between us. I saw her
eyes flick once towards mine, then away, and then, as she
felt the persistence of my gaze, to mine again. I smiled; she
slowed her step and, with a show of uncertainty, smiled
back: but I could see that she had not the least idea who I
might be. I couldn't let the moment pass. While my eyes
still held her questioning, amiable gaze, I lifted my hand to
my head and raised my hat, and said in the same low tone
that I had used on her before: 'G'mornin!’
As before, she started. Then she glanced up at the balcony
above my head. And then she pinked. 'Oh! It was you then was it?'
I smiled again, and gave a little bow. My stays creaked; it
felt all wrong, being gallant in a skirt, and I had a sudden
fear that she might take me not for an impertinent voyeur,
but for a fool. But when I raised my eyes to hers again her
flush was fading, and her face showed neither contempt,
nor discomfiture, but a kind of amusement. She tilted her
A van passed between us, followed by a cart. In lifting my
hat to her this time I had thought only, and vaguely, to
correct the earlier misunderstanding; perhaps, to make her
smile. But when the street was once again clear and she still
stood there it seemed a kind of invitation. I crossed, and
stood before her. I said, 'I'm sorry if I frightened you the
other night.' She seemed embarassed at the memory, but
'You didn't frighten me,' she said, as if she were never
frightened. 'You just gave me a bit of a start. If I'd known
you were a woman - well!' She blushed again - or it may
have been the same blush as before, I couldn't tell. Then she
glanced away; and we fell silent.
'Where's your friend the musician?' I said at last. I held an
imaginary mandolin to my waist and gave it a couple of
'Miss Derby,' she said with a smile. 'She is back at our
office. I do a bit of work with a charity, finding houses for
poor families that've lost their homes.' She had a plain East
End accent, more or less; but her voice was deep and
slightly breathy. 'We have been trying for ages to get our
hands on some of the flats in this block here, and that night
you saw me we had moved our first family in - a bit of a
success for us, we are only a small affair - and Miss Derby
thought we should make a party of it.'
'Oh yes? Well, she plays very nicely. You should tell her to
come and busk round here more often.'
'You live there then, do you?' she asked, nodding towards
Mrs Milne's.
'I do. I like to sit out on the balcony ..."
She raised her hand to tuck away a lock of hair beneath her
bonnet. 'And always in trousers?' she asked me then, so that
I blinked.
'Only sometimes in trousers.'
'But always, to gaze at the women and give them a start?'
Now I blinked two or three times. 'I never thought to do it,'
I answered, 'before I saw you.' It was the plain truth; but she
laughed at it, as if to say, Oh yes. The laugh, and the
exchange which had provoked it, was unsettling. I studied
her more closely. As I had seen on that first night, she was
not what you might term a beauty. She was thick at the
waist and almost stout, and her face was broad, her chin a
firm one. Her teeth were even, but not perfectly white; her
eyes were hazel, but the lashes not long; her hands,
however, seemed graceful. Her hair was the kind of hair we
had all been thankful, as girls, that we did not have - for
though she had bound it into a bun at her neck, the curls
kept springing from it and twisting about her face. With the
lamp behind it, too, it had seemed auburn; but it would
really be more truthful to say that it was brown.
I believe I liked it better that she was not more handsome.
And though there was something wonderfully intriguing
about her tranquillity at my strange behaviour - as if women
donned gents' trousers all the time; as if they made love to
girls on balconies so often that she was used to it, and
thought it merely naughty - I did not think I saw that trick
in her, that furtive something, that I had recognised in other
girls. Certainly nobody, gazing at her, would ever think to
sneer and call out Torn] Again, though, I was glad of it. I
had quit the business of hearts and kisses; I was in quite
another trade altogether, these days!
And yet would it hurt me after all this time to have a friend?
I said, 'Look here, will you come to the park with me? I was
just on my way there when I saw you.'
She smiled, but shook her head: 'I'm working, I couldn't.'
'It's too hot for working.'
The work must still be done, you know. I have a visit to
make at Old Street - a lady Miss Derby knows might have
some rooms for us. I should be there now, really.' And she
frowned down at a little watch that hung from a ribbon at
her breast like a medal.
'Can't you send to Miss Derby and make her go? It seems
awfully hard on you. I bet she's sitting in the office with her
feet upon her desk, playing a tune on the mandolin; and
here are you out in the sun doing all the tramping about.
You need a bit of ice-cream, at the least; there's an Italian
lady in Kensington Gardens who sells the best ices in
London, and she lets me have them at half-price . . .'
She smiled again. 'I cannot. Else, what would happen to all
our poor families?'
I didn't care a button about the families; but I did care,
suddenly at the thought that I might lose her. I said, 'Well,
then I shall have to see you when you come again to Green
Street. When will that be?'
'Ah well, you see,' she said, 'it won't. I shall be leaving this
post in a couple of days, and.I am to help with the running
of a hostel, at Stratford. It is better for me, since it's nearer
where I live, and I know the local people; but it means I
shall be spending most of my days down East..."
'Oh,' I said. 'And shall you never be coming into town, at
all, after that?'
She hesitated; then: 'Well, I do sometimes come in, in the
evenings. I go to the theatre, or to the lectures at the
Athenaeum Hall. You might come with me, to one of those
places .. .'
I only went to the theatre, now, as a renter; I wouldn't sit in
a velvet seat before a stage again, even for her. I said, 'The
Athenaeum Hall? I know that place. But lectures - what do
you mean? Church stuff?'
'Political stuff. You know, the Class Question, the Irish
Question ..."
I felt my heart sink. The Woman Question.'
'Exactly. They have speakers, and readings, and afterwards
debates. Look here.' She reached into her satchel and drew
forth a slim blue pamphlet. The Athenaeum Hall Society
Lecture Series, it said; Women and Labour: An Address by
Mr- and it gave a name I now forget, followed by a little
piece of explanatory text, and a date that was for four or
five days ahead.
I said, 'Lord!' in an ambiguous sort of way. She lifted her
head, took the pamphlet back from me, and said: 'Well,
perhaps, after all, you would prefer the ice-cream cart in
Kensington Gardens ..." There was a hint of rustiness about
the words, that I found I could not bear to hear. I said at
once, 'Good heavens, no: this looks a treat!' But I added,
that if they really didn't sell ices in the hall, then I thought
we ought to take some refreshment first. There was, I had
heard, a little public-house at the King's Cross corner of
Judd Street with a ladies' room at the back of it, where they
did a very nice, very inexpensive supper. The lecture began
at seven - would she meet me there beforehand? At, say, six
o'clock? I said -because I thought it would please her - that
I might need some instruction, in the ins and outs of the
Woman Question.
At that she snorted, and gave me another knowing look;
though what it was she thought she knew, I wasn't sure. She
did, however, agree to meet me - with a warning that I must
not let her down. I said there was not a chance of it, held
out my hand; and for a second felt her fingers, very firm
and warm in their grey linen glove, clasp my own.
It was only after we had parted that I realised we had not
exchanged names; but by then she had turned the corner of
Green Street, and was gone. But I had, as a piece of secret
knowledge from our earlier, darker encounter, her own
romantic Christian name, at least. And besides, I knew I
should be seeing her again within the week.
Chapter 10
The days that week grew ever warmer, until at last even I
began to tire of the heat. All London longed for a break in
the weather; and on Thursday evening, when it finally
came, crowds took to the streets of the city in sheer relief.
I was amongst them. For two days almost I had kept
indoors in a kind of hot stupor, drinking endless cups of
lemonade with Mrs Milne and Gracie in their darkened
parlour, or dozing naked on my bed with the windows
thrown open and the curtains pulled. Now the promise of a
night of chilly liberty on the swarming, gaudy streets of the
West End drew me like a magnet. My purse, too, was
almost empty - and I was mindful of the supper I would
have to take care of, with Florence, the following night. So
I needed, I thought, to cut something of a dash. I washed,
and combed my hair flat and brilliant with macassar; and
when I dressed I put on my favourite costume - the
guardsman's uniform, with its brass buttons and its piping,
its scarlet jacket and its neat little cap. I hardly ever wore
this outfit. The military pips and buckles meant nothing to
me, but I had a vague terror that some real soldier might
one day recognise them, and claim me for his regiment; or
else that some emergency might occur - the Queen be
assaulted while I was strolling by Buckingham Palace, for
instance - and I would be called upon to play some
impossible role in its resolution. But the suit was a lucky
one, too. It had brought me the bold gentleman of the
Burlington Arcade, whose kiss had proved such a fateful
one; and it had tipped the wavering balance at my first
interview at Mrs Milne's. Tonight, I thought, I should be
content enough if it would only net me a sovereign.
And there was a curious quality to the city that night, that
seemed all of a piece with the costume I had chosen. The
air was cool and unnaturally clear, so that colours - the red
of a painted lip, the blue of a sandwich-man's boards, the
violet and the green and the yellow of a flower-girl's tray -
seemed to leap out of the gloom. It was just as if the city
were a monstrous carpet to which a giant hand had applied
the beater, to make all glow again. Infected by the mood I
had sensed even in my Green Street chamber, people had,
like me, put on their finest. Girls in gay dresses walked the
pavements in long, intimidating lines, or spooned with their
bowler-hatted beaux on steps and benches. Boys stood
drinking at the doors of public-houses, their pomaded heads
gleaming, in the gas-light, like silk. The moon hung low
above the roofs of Soho, pink and bright and swollen as a
Chinese lantern. One or two stars winked viciously
alongside it.
And through it all sauntered I, in my suit of scarlet; and yet
by eleven o'clock, when the streets were thinning, I had had
no luck at all. A couple of gents had seemed to like the look
of me, and one rough-looking man had set himself to follow
me, right the way from Piccadilly to Seven Dials and back
again. But the gents, at the last, had been lured by other
renters; and the rough man was not the type I cared for. I
had given him the slip in a lavatory with two exits.
And then there had been yet another almost-encounter,
later, while I was idling beside a lamp-post in St James's
Square. A brougham had driven slowly by, then stopped;
and then, like me, it had lingered. No one had got out of it,
no one had got in. The driver had had a high collar
shadowing his face, and had never moved his gaze from his
horse - but there had been a certain twitching of the lace at
the dark carriage windows, that let me know that I was
being observed, carefully, from within.
I had strolled about a bit, and lit a cigarette. I didn't, for
obvious reasons, do carriage jobs. Gents on wheels, I knew
from my friends at Leicester Square, were demanding.
They paid well, but expected correspondingly large
favours: bum-work, bed-work - nights, sometimes, in
hotels. Even so, it never hurt to show off a bit: the gent
inside might remember me on another, more pedestrian,
occasion. I had ambled up and down the edges of the
Square for a good ten minutes, occasionally reaching down
to give a twitch to my groin - for, in the rather flamboyant
spirit in which I had dressed that night, I had padded my
drawers with a rolled silk cravat, instead of my usual
kerchief or glove, and the material was slippery, and kept
edging along my thigh. Still, I thought, such a gesture might
not prove unpleasing to the distant eye of an interested gent.
The carriage, however, with its taciturn driver and bashful
occupant, had at last jerked into life and pulled away.
Since then my admirers had all, apparently, been as
cautious as that last one; I had sensed a few interested
glances slither my way, but had managed to hook none of
them with my own more frankly searching one. By now it
had grown very dark, and almost chill. It was time, I
thought, to pick my slow way home. I felt disappointed.
Not with my own performance, but with the evening itself,
which had opened with such promise and had finished such
a flop. I had not earned so much as a threepenny-bit: I
should now have to borrow a little cash from Mrs Milne,
and spend longer, more resolute, less choosy hours on the
streets over the following week, until my luck turned. The
thought did not cheer me: renting, which had seemed such a
holiday at first, had come to seem, of late, a little tiresome.
It was in these spirits that I began to make my way back to
Green Street - avoiding, now, the busier routes that I had
trod for fun before, and taking back roads: Old Compton
Street; Arthur Street; Great Russell Street, which took me
by the pale, silent mass of the British Museum; and finally
Guilford Street, which would lead me by the Foundling
Hospital and on to the Gray's Inn Road.
Even on these quieter routes, however, the traffic seemed
unusually heavy - unusually, and puzzlingly, for though
few carts and hansoms seemed actually to pass me, the low
clatter of wheels and hooves formed a continuous
accompaniment to my own slow footfalls. At last, at the
entrance to a dim and silent mews, I understood why; for
here I paused to tie my lace and, as I stooped, looked
casually behind me. There was a carriage moving slowly
towards me out of the gloom, a private carriage with a
particular, well-greased rumble I now knew for the one that
had pursued me all the way from Soho, and a hunched and
muffled driver I thought I recognised. It was the brougham
that had waited near me in St James's Square. Its shy
master, who had watched while I had posed beneath a
lamppost and strolled the pavement with my fingers at my
crotch, evidently fancied another look.
My lace tied, I straightened up, but cautiously kept my
place. The carriage slowed, then — in its dark interior still
hidden behind the heavy lace at its windows - it passed me
by. Then, a little way on, it drew to a halt. I began,
uncertainly, to walk towards it.
The driver, as before, was impassive and still: I could see
only the curve of his shoulders and the rise of his hat;
indeed, as I approached the rear of the vehicle he
disappeared from my view completely. In the darkness the
brougham seemed quite black, but where the light from a
guttering street-lamp spilled on it, it gleamed a deep
crimson, touched here and there with gold. The gent inside,
I thought, must be a very rich one.
Well, he would be disappointed; he had followed me for
nothing. I quickened my step, and made to move past, head
down. But as I drew level with the rear wheel I heard the
soft click of a latch undone: the door swung silently open,
blocking my path. From the shadows beyond the doorframe
drifted a thread of blue tobacco smoke; I heard a breath, a
rustle. Now I must either retrace my steps and cross behind
the vehicle, or squeeze between the swinging door and the
wall on my left -and catch a glimpse, perhaps, of its
enigmatic occupant. I confess, I was intrigued. Any gent
who could bring such a sense of drama to the staging of an
encounter which, in the ordinary course of things, might be
settled so unspectacularly - by a word, or a nod, or the
fluttering of one spit-blacked lash - was clearly someone
special. I was also, frankly, flattered; and having been
flattered, generous. Since he had had to make do so far with
admiring my bottom from a distance, I felt it only fair to
give him the chance of a closer look *- though he must, of
course, be content only to look.
I advanced a little towards the open door. Within, all was
dark; I saw only the vague outline of a shoulder, an arm, a
knee, against the lighter square of the far window. Then
briefly the end of a cigarette glowed bright in the blackness,
and glimmered redly on a pale gloved hand, and a face. The
hand was slender, and had rings upon it. The face was
powdered: a woman's face.
I was too surprised even to laugh - too startled, for a
moment, to do anything but stand at the rim of gloom that
seemed to spill out from the carriage, and gape at her; and
in that moment, she spoke.
'Can I offer you a ride?'
Her voice was rich and rather haughty, and somehow
arresting. It made me stammer. I said: 'That, that's very kind
of you, madam' - I sounded like a mincing shop-boy
refusing a tip -'but I'm not five minutes from home, and I
shall get there all the quicker if you'll let me say goodnight, and pass on my way.' I tilted my cap towards the dark
place where the voice had come from, and, with a tight little
smile, I made to move on.
But the lady spoke again.
'It's rather late,' she said, 'to be out on one's own, in streets
like these.' She drew on her cigarette, and the tip glowed
bright again in the shadows. 'Won't you let me drop you
somewhere? I have a very capable driver.'
I thought, I am sure you do: her man was still hunched
forward in his seat, his back to me, his thoughts his own. I
felt suddenly weary. I had heard stories in Soho about
ladies like this - ladies who rode the darkened streets with
well-paid servants, on the lookout for idle men or boys like
me who'd give them a thrill for the price of a supper. Rich
ladies with no husbands, or absent husbands, or even (so
Sweet Alice claimed) husbands at home, warming the bed,
with whom they shared their startled catches. I had never
known quite whether to believe in such ladies; here,
however, was one before me, haughty and scented and hot
for a lark.
What a mistake she had made this time!
I put my hand on the carriage-door and made to swing it to.
But again she spoke. 'If you won't,' she said, 'let me drive
you home, then won't you, as a favour, ride with me a
while? As you see, I am quite alone; and I've rather a
yearning for company, tonight.' Her voice seemed to
tremble - though whether with melancholy, or anticipation,
or even laughter, I could not tell.
'Look missis,' I said then, into the gloom, 'you're on the
wrong track. Let me pass, and get your driver to take you
another turn around Piccadilly.' Now I laughed: 'Believe
me, I haven't got what you're after.'
The carriage creaked; the red end of the cigarette bobbed
and brightened and illuminated, once again, a cheek, a
brow, a lip. The lip curled.
'On the contrary, my dear. You have exactly what I'm after.'
Still I did not guess, but only thought, Blimey, she's keen! I
glanced about me. A few carriages bowled along the Gray's
Inn Road, and two or three late pedestrians passed quickly
from sight, behind them. A hansom had pulled up at the end
of the mews, quite near us, and was letting its passengers
dismount; they disappeared into a doorway, and the hansom
rolled by and away, and all was still again. I took a breath,
and leaned into the dark interior of the coach.
'Madam,' I hissed, 'I ain't a boy at all. I'm -' I hesitated. The
end of the cigarette disappeared: she had thrown it out of
the window. I heard her give one impatient sigh - and all at
once I understood.
'You little fool,' she said. 'Get in.'
Well, what should I have done? I had been weary, but I was
not weary now. I had been disappointed, my expectations
for the evening dashed; but with this one, unlooked-for
invitation the glamour of the night seemed all restored.
True, it was very late, and I was alone, and this woman was
clearly a stranger of some determination, and with odd and
secret tastes ... But her voice and manner were, as I have
said, compelling ones. And she was rich. And my purse was
empty. I hesitated for a moment; then she held out her hand
and, where the lamplight fell upon her rings, I saw how
large the stones were. It was that - only that, just then which decided me. I took her hand, and climbed into the
We sat together in the gloom. The brougham lurched
forward with a muted creak, and started on its smooth,
quiet, expensive way. Through the heavy lace of its
windows the streets seemed changed, quite insubstantial.
This, I realised, was how the rich saw the city all the time.
I glanced at the woman at my side. She wore a dress or
cloak of some sombre, heavy material, indistinguishable
from the dark upholstery of the carriage's interior; her face
and gloved hands, illuminated by the regular gleam of
passing street-lamps, their surface fantastically marbled by
the shadow of the drapes, seemed to float, pale as waterlilies, in a pool of gloom. She was, as far as I could tell,
handsome, and quite young - perhaps ten years older than
For a full half-minute neither of us spoke; then she tilted
back her head, and looked me over. She said, 'You are,
perhaps, on your way home from a costume ball?' Her voice
had a new, slightly arrogant drawl to it.
'A ball?' I answered. To my own surprise I sounded reedy,
rather trembly.
'I thought - the uniform ..." She gestured towards my suit.
It, too, seemed to have lost some of its bravado, seemed to
be bleeding its crimson into the shadows of the coach. I felt
I was letting her down. I said, with an effort at music-hall
sauce, 'Oh, the uniform is my disguise for the streets, not a
party. I find that a girl in skirts, on her own in the city, gets
looked at, rather, in a way not always nice.'
She nodded. 'I see. And you don't care for that? - being
looked at, I mean. I should never have guessed it.'
'Well... It depends, of course, on who's doing the looking.'
I was getting back into my stride at last; and she, I could
sense it, was also warming up. I felt for a second - what I
had not felt, it seemed, for a hundred years - the thrill of
performing with a partner at my side, someone who knew
the songs, the steps, the patter, the pose . . . The memory
brought with it an old, dull ache of grief; but it was
overlaid, in this new setting, with a keen, expectant
pleasure. Here we were, this strange lady and I, on our way
to I knew not what, playing whore and trick so well we
might have been reciting a dialogue from some handbook
of tartery! It made me giddy.
Now she raised her hand to finger the braided collar of my
coat. 'What a little impostor you are!' she said mildly. Then:
'But you have a brother in the Guards, I think. A brother or, perhaps, a beau . . . ?' Her fingers trembled slightly, and
I felt the chillest of whispers of sapphire and gold upon my
I said, 'I work in a laundry, and a soldier brought this in. I
thought he wouldn't notice if I borrowed it." I smoothed out
the creases around my crotch, where the slippery cravat still
rudely bulged. 'I liked the cut,' I added, 'of the trousers.'
After the briefest of pauses her hand - as I knew it must moved to my knee, then crept to the top of my thigh, where
she let it rest. Her palm felt extraordinarily hot. It was an
age since anyone had touched me there; indeed, I had kept
such a close guard over my own lap lately, I had to fight
back the urge to brush her fingers away.
Perhaps she felt me stiffen, for she removed the hand
herself and said, 'I'm rather afraid that you are something of
a tease.'
'Oh,' I said, recovering, 'I can tease all right - if that's what
you care for .. .'
'And besides,' I added pertly, 'it's you who's the tease: I saw
you in St James's Square, watching me. Why didn't you
stop me then, if you wanted - company-so badly?'
'And spoil the fun with hastening it? Why, the wait was half
the pleasure!' As she said it she raised the fingers of her
other hand - her left hand - to my cheek. The gloves, I
thought, were rather damp about the tips; and they were
scented with a scent that made me draw back in confusion
and surprise.
She laughed. 'But how prim you have turned! You are never
so dainty, I'm sure, with the gentlemen of Soho.'
There was a knowingness to the remark. I said, 'You have
watched me before - before tonight!'
She answered: 'Well, it is rather marvellous what one may
catch, from one's carriage, if one is quick and keen and
patient. One may follow one's quarry like a hound with a
fox - and all the time the fox not know itself pursued might think itself only about its little private business:
lifting its tail, arching its eye, wiping its lips ... I might have
had you, dear, a dozen times: but oh! as I said, why spoil
the chase! Tonight - what was it, decided me at last?
Perhaps it was the uniform; perhaps the moon ..." And she
turned her face to the carriage window, where the moon
showed - higher and smaller than before, but still quite
pink, as if ashamed to look upon the wicked world to which
it was compelled to lend its light.
I, too, flushed at the lady's words. What she had said was
strange, was shocking - and yet, I guessed, might easily be
true. In the bustle and swarm of the streets on which I plied
my shadowy trade, a stationary or a lingering carriage
would be unremarkable - especially to me, who attended to
the traffic of the pavements rather than the roads. It made
me horribly uneasy to think she really had been observing
me, all those times . .. And yet, was it not just such an
audience that I had longed for? Had I not lamented, again
and again, precisely the fact that my new nocturnal
performances must be staged in the dark, under cover,
unguessed? I thought of all the parts I had handled, the
gents I'd knelt to and the cocks I'd sucked. I had done it all,
as cool as Christmas; now, the idea that she had watched
me went direct to the fork of my drawers and made me wet.
I said - I didn't know what else to say -I said, 'Am I then so
- special?'
'We shall see,' she answered.
After that, we spoke no more.
She took me to her home, in St John's Wood; and the house,
as I guessed it must be, was grand - a high, pale villa in a
well-swept square, with a wide front door and tall casement
windows with many panes of glass. In one of these a single
lamp sat gleaming; the neighbouring houses, however,
presented only black, shuttered windows, and the clatter of
our carriage sounded atrocious, to me, in the stillness -I was
not then used to that total, unnatural hush which fills the
streets and houses of the rich, when they are sleeping.
She led me to her door, saying nothing. Her knock was
answered by a grim-faced servant, who received her
mistress's cloak, looked once at me from beneath her lashes,
but after that kept her eyes quite lowered. The lady paused
to read the cards upon her table; and I, self-conscious,
looked about me. We were in a spacious hall, at the bottom
of a wide staircase winding up to darker, higher floors.
There were doors - closed - to the left and the right of us.
The floor was paved with marble, in squares of black and
pink. The walls, to match it, were painted a deep, deep rose;
and this darkened further, where the staircase curved and
lifted, like the interior whorls of a shell. I heard my hostess
say, 'That will do, Mrs Hooper', and the servant, with a
bow, took her leave. The lady lifted the lamp from the table
at my side and, still with no word for me, began to ascend
the stairs. I followed. We climbed to one floor, and then
another. At each step the house grew darker, until at last
there was only the narrow pool of light from my chaperon's
hand to guide my uncertain footsteps through the gloom.
She led me down a short passage to a closed door, then
turned and stood before it, one hand raised upon the panels,
the other with the lamp held at her thigh. Her dark eyes
gleamed, with
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inVlUHlUU Ul JJCiliapo .viui ^.^———-o-truth, like nothing so much as the 'Light of the World' that
hung above the umbrella-stand in Mrs Milne's hallway; but
her gesture was not lost on me. This was the third and most
alarming threshold I had crossed for her tonight. I felt a
prick, now, not of desire, but of fear: her face, lit from
beneath by the smoking lamp, seemed all at once macabre,
grotesque. I wondered at this lady's tastes, and how they
might have decked the room that lay behind this unspeaking
door, in this silent house, with its curious, incurious
servants. There might be ropes, there might be knives.
There might be a heap of girls in suits — their pomaded
heads neat, their necks all bloody. The lady smiled, and
turned. The door swung open. She led me in.
It was, after all, a kind of parlour; nothing more. A small
fire had burned itself ashy in the grate, and a bowl of
browning petals upon the mantel above it made the thick air
thicker with a heady perfume. The window was tall, and
close-drawn with velvet drapes; against the wall which
faced it were two armless, ladder-backed chairs. A door
beside the fireplace led into a further room; it was ajar, but I
could not see beyond it.
Between the chairs there was a bureau, and now the lady
crossed to it. She poured a glass of wine, and took up a
rose-tipped cigarette and lit it.
Wlin me lamp umu m. n.<^+ uu&». -— __..
invitation or perhaps with challenge. She looked, to tell the
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I had seen already that she was older, less handsome, but
more striking than I'd thought at first. Her forehead was
broad and pale - all the paler for being framed by the
rippled blackness of her hair and her heavy dark brows. Her
nose was very straight; her mouth was a full mouth that had
once, I guessed, been fuller. Her eyes were a deep hazel
and, in the dim light of the low-turned gas-jets, seemed all
pupil. When she narrowed them - which she did now, the
better to study me through the blue haze of tobacco smoke one noticed the network of wrinkles, fine and not so fine, in
which they were set.
The room was terribly warm. I unfastened the button at my
throat, then lifted my cap and raked my fingers through my
hair - afterwards rubbing my palm against the wool of my
thigh, to wipe the oil from it. And all the time she watched
me. Then she said, 'You must think me rather rude.'
To have brought you so far, without enquiring after your
I said, without hesitation, 'It's Miss Nancy King, and you
might at least offer me a cigarette, I think.'
She smiled, and came to me, and placed her own fag, halfsmoked and damp at the end, between my lips. I caught the
reek of it on her breath, together with the faint spice of the
wine that she had swallowed.
'If you were King of Pleasure,' she said, 'and I were Queen
of Pain ..." Then, in a different tone: 'You're very
handsome, Miss King.'
I took a long pull on the cigarette: it made me giddy as a
glass of cham. I said: 'I know.' At that, she raised her hands
to the front of my jacket - she was still wearing gloves, with
the rings on top - and ran them over me, delicately and
lingeringly, and sighing as she did so. Beneath the wool of
my uniform my nipples sprang up stiff as little sergeants;
my breasts - which had grown used to being as it were put
aside with my corset and chemise - seemed at her touch to
rise and swell and strain against their wrappings. I felt like
a man being transformed into a woman at the hand of a
sorceress. My cigarette smouldered at my lip, forgotten.
Her hands moved lower, and stopped at my lap, which now,
as before, began to pulse and heat. The silken cravat lay
rolled there; and as she fingered it, I blushed. She said,
'Now you are prim again!' and began to unfasten my
buttons. In a moment she had her hand through the slit of
my drawers, had seized a corner of the cravat, and began to
tug at it. The silk uncurled, and squirmed and susurrated its
way out of my trousers, like
an eel.
She looked absurdly like a stage magician, producing a
handkerchief or a string of flags from a fist, or an ear, or a
lady's purse - and, of course, she was too clever not to know
it: one dark eyebrow lifted, and her lip gave its ironical curl,
and she whispered 'Presto!' when the cravat was free. But
then her looked changed. She held the silk to her lips, and
gazed at me above it. 'All your promise has come to
nothing, after all,' she said. Then she laughed, and stepped
away, and nodded to my trousers - now gaping whitely, of
course, at the buttons. 'Take them off.' I did so at once,
fumbling with my shoes and stockings in my haste. My fag
showered me with ash, and I cast it into the grate. 'And the
underthings,' she went on,' -but leave the jacket. That's
Now I had a heap of discarded clothes at my feet. My jacket
ended at my hips; beneath it, in the dim light, my legs
looked very white, the triangle of hair between them very
dark. The lady watched me all the while, making no move
to touch me further. But when I was finished, she went to a
drawer in the bureau; and when she turned back to me she
held something in her hand. It was a key.
'In my bedroom,' she said, nodding towards the second
door, 'you'll find a trunk, which this will open.' She handed
it to me. It felt very chill upon my overheated palm, and for
a moment I merely gazed stupidly at it. Then she clapped
her hands: 'Presto!' she said again; and this time, she did not
smile, and her voice was rather thick.
The room next door was smaller than the parlour, but quite
as rich, and just as dim and hot. On one side there was a
screen, with a commode behind it; on the other stood a
japanned press, its surface hard and black and glossy, like a
beetle's back. At the bottom of the bed there was, as she had
promised, a trunk: a handsome, antique chest made of some
desiccated, perfumed wood - rosewood, I think — with four
claw feet and corners of brass, and elaborate carvings on its
sides and lid which the dull glow of the fire threw into
exaggerated relief. I knelt before it, placed the key in the
lock; and felt the shifting, as I turned it, of some deep
interior spring.
A movement in the corner of the room made me turn my
head. There was a cheval-glass there, big as a door, and I
saw myself reflected in it: pale and wide-eyed, breathless
and curious, but for all that an unlikely Pandora, with my
scarlet jacket and my saucy cap, my crop and my bare bare
bum. In the room next door all was hushed and still. I
turned to the trunk again, and lifted its lid. Inside was a
jumble of bottles and scarves, of cords and packets and
yellow-bound books. I didn't pause to gaze upon these
objects then, however; indeed, I hardly registered them at
all. For on the top of the jumble, on a square of velvet, lay
the queerest, lewdest thing I ever saw.
It was a kind of harness, made of leather: belt-like, and yet
not quite a belt, for though it had one wide strap with
buckles on it, two narrower, shorter bands were fastened to
this and they, too, were buckled. For one alarming moment
I thought it might be a horse's bridle; then I saw what the
straps and the buckles supported. It was a cylinder of
leather, rather longer than the length of my hand and about
as fat, in width, as I could grip. One end was rounded and
slightly enlarged, the other fixed firm to a flattened base; to
this, by hoops of brass, the belt and the narrower bands
were all also fastened.
It was, in short, a dildo. I had never seen one before; I did
not, at that time, know that such things existed and had
For all I knew of it, this might be an original, that the lady
had had fashioned to a pattern of her own.
Perhaps Eve thought the same, when she saw her first
Even so, it didn't stop her knowing what the apple was for
But in case I still wondered, the lady now spoke. 'Put it on,'
she called - she must have caught the opening of the trunk 'put it on, and come to me.'
I struggled for a moment or two over the placing of the
straps, and the tightening of the buckles. The brass bit into
the white flesh of my hips, but the leather was wonderfully
supple and warm. I glanced again towards the lookingglass. The base of the phallus was a darker wedge upon my
own triangular shield of hair, and its lowest tip nudged me
in a most insinuating way. From this base the dildo itself
obscenely sprang -not straight out, but at a cunning angle,
so that when I looked down at it I saw first its bulbous
head, gleaming in the red glow of the fire and split by a
near-invisible seam of tiny, ivory stitches.
When I took a step, the head gave a nod.
'Come here,' said the lady when she saw me in the doorway;
and as I walked to her, the dildo bobbed still harder. I lifted
my hand to still it; and when she saw me do that she placed
her own fingers over mine, and made them grasp the shaft
and stroke it. Now the base's insinuating nudges grew more
insinuating still: it was not long before my legs began to
tremble and she, sensing my rising pleasure, began to
breathe more harshly. She took her hands away, and turned
and lifted her hair from the nape of her neck, and gestured
for me to undress her.
I found the hooks of her gown, and then the laces of her
corset: beneath this, I saw, she was mottled scarlet from the
hundred tiny creases of her chemise. She stooped to remove
her petticoats, but retained her drawers, her stockings and
her boots and, still, her gloves. Very daring - for I had not
touched her at all, yet - I slid a hand into the slit of her
drawers; and with the other I caught hold of one of her
nipples, and pressed it.
At that, she put her mouth to mine. Our kisses were
imperfect ones, as all new lovers' kisses are, and tasted of
tobacco; but - again, like all new lovers' kisses - their very
strangeness made them thrilling. The more I fingered her
the harder she kissed me, and the hotter I grew between my
legs, behind my sheath of leather. Finally she pulled away,
and seized my wrists.
'Not yet,' she said. 'Not yet, not yet!'
With my hands still clasped in hers she led me to one of the
straight-backed chairs and sat me on it, the dildo all the
while straining from my lap, rude and rigid as a skittle. I
guessed her purpose. With her hands close-pressed about
my head and her legs straddling mine, she gently lowered
herself upon me; then proceeded to rise and sink, rise and
sink, with an ever speedier motion. At first I held her hips,
to guide them; then I returned a hand to her drawers, and let
the fingers of the other creep round her thigh to her
buttocks. My mouth I fastened now on one nipple, now on
the other, sometimes finding the salt of her flesh,
sometimes the dampening cotton of her chemise.
Soon her breaths became moans, then cries; soon my own
voice joined hers, for the dildo that serviced her also
pleasured me - her motions bring it with an ever faster, ever
harder pressure against just that part of me that cared for
pressure best. I had one brief moment of selfconsciousness, when I saw myself as from a distance,
straddled by a stranger in an unknown house, buckled
inside that monstrous instrument, panting with pleasure and
sweating with lust. Then in another moment I could think
nothing, only shudder; and the pleasure - mine and hers found its aching, arching crisis, and was spent.
After a second she eased herself from my lap, then
straddled my thigh and rocked gently there, occasionally
jerking, and at last growing still. Her hair, which had come
loose, was hot against my jaw.
At length she laughed, and moved again against my hip.
'Oh, you exquisite little tart!' she said.
And thus we clasped one another, sated and spent, our legs
inelegantly straddling that elegant, high-backed chair; and
as the minutes passed I thought with something like dismay
of how the night would now proceed. I thought, She's had
me fuck her; now she'll send me home. If I'm in luck I
might get a pound, for my trouble. It was the prospect of
the sovereign, after all, which had lured me to her parlour in
the first place. And yet, now, there was something
inexpressibly dreary to me at the idea of quitting her
company - of surrendering the toy to which I was strapped,
and quieting the tommish urges it and its mistress had all
unexpectedly revived.
She raised her head and saw, I suppose, my downcast look.
'Poor child,' she said. 'And do you always grow sorry, when
your business is complete?' She put a hand to my chin and
tilted my face to the lamplight, and I caught her wrist and
shook my head free. My cap - which had remained on my
head through all our violent kisses - now fell off. She at
once returned her hands to my face, and fingered my
pomade-stiffened hair; then she laughed, and rose, and
walked into her bedroom. Tour yourself some wine,' she
called. 'And light me a cigarette, will you?' I heard the hiss
of water against china, and guessed that she was using the
I moved to the glass, and examined myself. My face was as
scarlet, almost, as my jacket, my hair was ruffled, my lips
looked bruised and swollen. I remembered the dildo at my
hip, and stooped to unfasten it. Its lustre was cloudy now,
and its nether straps were sodden and limp from my own
lavish spendings; yet it was as indecently rigid and ready as
before -that never happened with the gents in Soho. There
was a handkerchief on the little table before the fire, and
with this I wiped first it, and then myself. I lit two
cigarettes, and left one smouldering. Then I poured myself
a glass of wine and, in between gulps, began to retrieve my
stockings, my trousers and my boots from the pile of
clothes that lay strewn across the carpet.
The lady reappeared, and seized her fag. She had changed
into a dressing-gown of heavy green silk, and her feet were
bare; she had that long second toe that you sometimes see
on the statues done by the Greeks. Her hair had been
properly unfastened, combed out, and rebound into a long,
loose plait, and she had at last removed her white kid
gloves. The flesh of her hands was almost as pale.
'Do leave all that,' she said, nodding towards the trousers
over my arm. 'The maid will deal with it in the morning.'
Then she saw the dildo, and caught it up by one of its
straps. 'I should, however, remove this.'
I was not sure that I had heard her properly. 'The morning?'
I said. 'Do you mean that I should stay?'
'Why, of course.' She looked genuinely surprised. 'Are you
not able? Will you be missed?' I felt light-headed suddenly.
I told her that I lodged with a lady who, though she would
wonder at my absence, wouldn't worry over it. Then she
asked if I had an employer - perhaps at the laundry I had
mentioned? - who would expect me on the morrow. I
laughed at that, and shook my head: 'There is no one at all
to miss me. I've only myself to think of and please.'
As I said it, the toy at her thigh began to swing.
She said, 'You did, before tonight. Now, however, you have
me . . .'
Her words, her expression, made a mockery of my efforts
with the handkerchief: I was wet for her anew. I reunited
my trousers with her discarded petticoats, and added my
jacket to the pile. Next door, the silken counterpane had
been turned back, and the sheets beneath looked very white
and cool. The chest kept its still, enigmatic place at the foot
of the bed. The clock on the mantel showed half-past two.
It was four, or thereabouts, before we slumbered; and
perhaps eleven when I woke. I remembered stumbling to
the commode some time in the early morning, and recalled
the brief renewal of passion which had followed my return
to her arms; but my sleep since then had been a heavy,
dreamless one, and when next I knew the bed I was alone in
it: she had donned her dressing-gown and stood at the halfopened window, smoking, and gazing thoughtfully at the
view beyond. I stirred, and she turned and smiled.
'You sleep like a child,' she said. 'I have been up this halfhour, making a fearful row, and still you've slumbered on.'
'I was so very weary.' I yawned - then I recalled all that had
wearied me. A slight awkwardness seemed to fall between
us. The room last night had been as unreal as a stage-set: a
place of lamplight and shadows, and colours and scents of
impossible brilliance, in which we had been given a licence
to be not ourselves, or more than ourselves, as actors are.
Now, in the late morning light that flowed between the
partly-drawn drapes, I saw that there was nothing fantastic
about the chamber at all; I saw that it was really elegant,
and rather austere. I felt, all at once, quite horribly out of
place. How does a tart take leave of her customer? I did not
know; I had never had to do it.
The lady was still gazing at me. She said, 'I have waited for
you to wake, before ringing for breakfast.' There was a bellpull set into the wall beside the fireplace: I had not seen that
the night before, either. 'I hope you are hungry?'
I was, I realised, very hungry indeed; but also slightly
nauseous. My mouth, moreover, tasted abominable: I hoped
she wouldn't try to kiss me again. She didn't, but kept her
distance. Soon, piqued by her new, queer, self-conscious
air, I began to think that she might, at least, come and put
her lips to my hand.
There was a low, respectful knock on the outer door of the
adjoining room. At her call the door was opened; I heard
footsteps, and the rattle of china. To my amazement the
rattle grew louder, the footsteps approached: the servant who I thought would deposit her burden in the room next
door, and discreetly take her leave - appeared in the
doorway of ours, I pulled the sheet to my throat and lay
quite still; neither the mistress nor the maid, however,
appeared in any way discomfited by my presence there. The
latter - not the pale-faced woman I had seen the night
before, but a girl a little younger than myself - gave a bob
and, with her eyes lowered, made space for a tray on the
dressing-table. When she had finished with the china she
paused with her head bent and her hands folded over her
'Very good, Blake, that will be all for now,' said the lady.
'But have a bath ready for Miss King by half-past twelve.
And tell Mrs Hooper I shall speak to her about luncheon,
later.' Her tone was quite polite, yet colourless; I had heard
ladies and gentlemen use that tone on cabmen and shopgirls
and porters a thousand times.
The girl gave another little duck to her head - 'Yes m'm' and withdrew. She had not looked towards the bed, at all.
With the breakfast things to busy ourselves over, the next
few minutes passed easily. I raised myself into a sitting
position - wincing all the time, for my body ached as if it
had been pummelled, or stretched on a rack - and the lady
fed me coffee, and warm rolls spread with butter and
honey. She herself only drank and, later, smoked. She
seemed to take pleasure from seeing me eat - as last night
she had liked to watch me stand, undress, light cigarettes;
but, still, there was that disconcerting thoughtfulness about
her, that made me long for her honest, cruel kisses of the
night before.
When we had drained the coffee-pot between us, and I had
finished all the rolls, she spoke; and her voice was graver
than I had yet heard it. She said: 'Last night, upon the street,
I invited you to drive with me and you hesitated. Why was
'I was afraid,' I answered honestly.
She nodded. 'You are not afraid now?'
'You are glad that I brought you here.'
It was not a question, but as she said it she raised a hand to
my throat, and stoked me there until I reddened and
swallowed; and I could not help but answer: 'Yes.'
Then the hand was removed. She grew thoughtful again,
and smiled. She said: 'There is a Persian story I read as a
girl, about a princess and a beggar, and a djinn. The beggar
sets the djinn free from a bottle, and is rewarded with a
wish; but the wish - they always do, alas! - comes with
conditions. The man may live in ordinary comfort for
seventy years; or he may live in pleasure - with a princess
for a wife, and servants to bathe him, and robes of gold - he
may live in pleasure, for five hundred days.' She paused;
then said: 'Which would you choose, if you were that
I hesitated. Those stories are silly,' I said at last. 'Nobody is
ever asked -'
'Which would you choose? The comfort; or the pleasure?'
She put her hand to my cheek.
'I suppose then, the pleasure.'
She nodded: 'Of course; and so did the beggar. I should be
very sorry, if you had said the other thing.'
'Can you not guess?' She smiled again. 'You say that there
is no one you must answer to. Have you no - sweetheart,
even?' I shook my head, and perhaps looked bitter, for she
sighed with a kind of satisfaction. 'Tell me, then: will you
stay with me, here? - and be pleasured, and pleasure me, in
your turn?'
For a second I only gazed stupidly at her. 'Stay with you?' I
said. 'Stay as what? Your guest, your servant -?'
'My tart.'
'Your tart!' I blinked; then heard my voice grow a little
hard. 'And how should I be paid for that? Rather
handsomely, I should think . . .'
'My dear, I have said: you should have pleasure for your
wages! You should live with me here, and enjoy my
privileges. You should eat from my table, and ride in my
brougham, and wear the clothes I will pick out for you - and
remove them, too, when I should ask it. You should be
what the sensational novels call kept.'
I gazed at her, then looked away - at the silken counterpane
upon the bed, the japanned press, the bell-pull, the
rosewood trunk .... I pictured my room at Mrs Milne's,
where I had come so close of late to real happiness; but I
remembered too my growing obligations there, that had
made me, more than once, uneasy. How much freer would I
paradoxically be, bound to this lady - bound to lust, bound
to pleasure!
And yet, it was a little sickening, too, that she made such
promises, so easily. I said - and again, my voice was hard 'And have you no fear of sensation then? You seem rather
sure of me - but you know nothing about me! Don't you
worry I'll raise a row; that I'll tell the papers - the police your secret?'
'And with it, your own? Oh no, Miss King. I have no fear of
sensation: on the contrary, I court it! I seek out sensation!
And so do you.' She leaned closer, and fingered a lock of
my hair. 'You say I know nothing about you; but I have
watched you upon the streets, remember. How coolly you
pose and wander and flirt! Did you think you could play at
Ganymede, for ever? Did you think, if you wore a silken
cock, it meant you never had a cunt at the seam of your
drawers?' Her face was very close to my own; she would
not let me turn my eyes from hers. She said: 'You're like
me: you have shown it, you are showing it now! It is your
own sex for which you really hunger! You thought,
perhaps, to stifle your own appetites: but you have only
made them swell the more! And that is why you won't raise
a row - why you still stay, and be my tart, as I desire.' She
gave my hair a cruel twist. 'Admit that it is as I say!'
'It is!'
For it was, it was! What she said was the truth: she had
found out all my secrets; she had shown me to myself. Not
just with the fierce words of that moment, but with all - the
kisses, the caresses, the fuck on the chair - that had made
her say them; and I was glad! I had loved Kitty -I would
always love Kitty. But I had lived with her a kind of queer
half-life, hiding from my own true self. Since then I had
refused to love at all, had become - or so I thought - a
creature beyond passion, driving others to their secret,
humiliating confessions of lust; but never offering my own.
Now, this lady had torn it from me -had laid me bare, as
surely as if she had ripped the shrieking flesh from my
white bones. She pressed against me still; and even as her
breath came warm against my cheek, I felt my lusts rise up
to meet her own, and knew myself in thrall.
After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that
discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That
night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose
at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into
love -that had been one such moment. This was another;
perhaps, indeed, it had already passed - perhaps it was the
second when I was guided into the dark heart of that
waiting carriage that was the real start of my new life.
Either way, I knew I could not go back to the old one, now.
The djinn was out of the bottle at last; and I had settled on
I never thought to ask what happened to the beggar in the
tale, once the five hundred days came to an end.
Chapter 11
The lady's name, I learned in time, was Diana: Diana
Lethaby. She was a widow, and childless, and rich, and
venturesome, and thus - though on a considerably grander
scale - as accomplished in the habits of self-pleasure as
myself, and quite as hard of heart. In that summer of 1892
she would have been eight-and-thirty - younger, that is,
than I am now, though she seemed terribly old to me then,
at twenty-two. Her marriage had been, I think, a loveless
one, for she wore neither wedding-ring nor mourning-ring,
nor was there any picture of Mr Lethaby in any room in that
large, handsome house. I never asked after him, and she
never questioned me about my past. She had created me
anew: the old dark days before were nothing to her.
And they must become nothing to me, of course, now that
we had settled our bargain. On that first, fierce morning of
my time in her house, she had me kiss her again, then bathe,
then re-don my old guardsman's uniform; and as I dressed,
she stood a little to one side and studied me. She said, 'We
shall have to buy you some new suits. This one - for all its
charms -will hardly do for very long. I shall ask Mrs
Hooper to send to an outfitters.'
I buttoned my trousers and drew the braces over my arms. 'I
have other costumes," I said, 'at home.'
'But you would rather have new ones.'
I frowned. 'Of course, but -I must fetch my things. I cannot
leave them all unsorted.'
'I could send a boy for them.'
I pulled on my jacket. 'I owe my landlady a month in rent.'
'I shall send her the money. How much shall I send? A
Pound? Two pounds?'
I didn't answer. Her words had made me understand anew
the enormity of the change that was come upon me; and I
thought, for the first time, of the visit I should have to
make, to Mrs Milne and Gracie. I could hardly shirk my
duty there by sending a boy, with a letter and a coin - could
I? I knew I could not.
'I must go myself,' I said at last. 'I should like, you know, to
say good-bye to my friends.'
She raised an eyebrow: 'As you wish. I shall have Shilling
bring the carriage round, this afternoon.'
'I could just as easily catch a tram ..."
'I shall send for Shilling.' She came to me, and set my
guardsman's cap upon my head, and brushed my scarlet
shoulders. 'I think it very naughty of you, to want to go
from me at all. I must be sure, at least, of having you come
swiftly back!'
My visit to Green Street was every bit as dreary as I knew it
must be. I could not bear, somehow, for the brougham to
draw up at Mrs Milne's front door, so I asked Mr Shilling Diana's taciturn driver - to drop me at Percy Circus and wait
for me there. When I let myself in with my house-key,
therefore, it was as if I had just returned from a shopping
expedition or a stroll, as I did most days; there was nothing
but the length of my absence from them to hint to Mrs
Milne and Gracie of my awful change of fortune. I closed
the door very softly; still, Grace's sharp ears must have
caught the sound, for I heard her - she was in the parlour give a cry of 'Nance!', and the next moment she had come
lolloping down the stairs and had me in a fierce, neckbreaking embrace. Her mother soon followed her to the
'My dear!' she called, 'you're home, and thank goodness!
We've been wondering ourselves silly - haven't we, love? about where you might've got to. Gracie was fretted near
half to death, poor soul, but I said to her: "Don't you worry
about Nancy, girl; Nancy will've found some friend to take
her in, or missed the last bus home, and passed the night in
some rooming-house. Nancy will be back all right,
tomorrow, you wait and see.'" As she spoke she came
slowly down the stairs, until at last we were quite level. She
gazed at me with real affection; but there was a hint of
reproach, I thought, in her words. I felt even more guilty
about what I must tell her - but also slightly resentful. I was
not her daughter, nor was I Grade's sweetheart. I owed them
nothing -I told myself - but my rent.
Now I drew carefully away from Grace, and nodded to her
mother. I said, 'You're right, I did meet a friend. A very old
friend I hadn't seen in a long time. What a surprise it was, to
meet her! She has rooms over in Kilburn. It was too far to
come back so late.' The story sounded hollow to me, but
Mrs Milne seemed pleased enough with it.
There now, Gracie,' she said, 'what did I tell you? Now, just
you run downstairs and put the kettle on. Nancy'll be
wanting a bit of tea, I don't doubt.' She smiled at me again,
while Gracie dutifully lumbered off; then she headed back
up the stairs, and I followed.
'The thing is, Mrs Milne,' I began, 'this friend of mine, she's
in a bit of a state. You see her room-mate up and moved out
last week' - Mrs Milne checked slightly, then stepped
steadily on - 'and she can't replace her; and she can't afford
all the rent herself, she has only a little part-time work in a
milliner's, poor thing ..." We had reached the parlour. Mrs
Milne turned to face me, and her eyes were troubled.
That is a shame,' she said feelingly. 'A good roomer is hard
to find, these days, that I do know. That's why - and I've
told you so before, you know I have - that's why me and
Gracie've been so glad to have you with us. Why, if you
was ever to leave us, Nance -' This seemed the worst
possible way for me to tell her, yet I had to speak.
'Oh, don't say that, Mrs M!' I said lightly. 'For you see, I'm
sorry to say I shall be leaving you. This friend of mine has
asked me and, well, I said I would take the other girl's place
-just to help her out, you know . . .' My voice grew thin.
Mrs Milne looked grey. She sank into a chair and put a
hand to her throat.
'Oh, Nance . . .'
'Now don't,' I said, with an attempt at jollity, 'don't be like
that; now just don't! I'm not so special a boarder, heaven
knows; and you'll soon find another nice girl to take my
'But it ain't me I'm thinking of so much,' she said, 'as
Gracie. You have been so good with her, Nance; there's not
many as would understand her like you do; not many who
would take the trouble over her little ways, the way you
'But I shall come back and visit,' I said reasonably. 'And
Grace -' I swallowed as I said it, for I knew there would
never be a welcome for Gracie in the stillness and richness
and elegance of Diana's villa - 'Grace can come and visit
me. It won't be so bad.'
'Is it the money, Nance?' she said then. 'I know you ain't got
much -'
'No, of course it ain't the money,' I said. 'Indeed -' I had
remembered the coin in my pocket: a pound, placed there
by Diana's own fingers. It more than covered the rent I
owed, and the fortnight's warning I should have given. I
held it out to her; but when she only gazed bleakly at it and
made no move to take it, I stepped awkwardly to the
mantelpiece and laid it softly there.
There was a silence, broken only by Mrs Milne's sighs. I
coughed. 'Well,' I said, 'I had better go and get my things
together. . .'
'What! You ain't leaving us today! Not so soon?"
'I did promise my friend I would,' I said, trying to suggest
by my tone that my friend might have all the blame for it.
'But you'll stay for a bit of tea, at least?'
The thought of the dreary tea-party we would make, with
Mrs Milne so ashen and disappointed, and Gracie in all
probability in tears, or worse, filled me with dismay. I bit
my lip.
'I'd better not,' I said.
Mrs Milne straightened, and her mouth grew small. She
shook her head slowly. 'This will break my poor girl's
There was a flintiness to her tone that was more frightening,
more shaming, than her sadness had been; but I found
myself, again, vaguely piqued. I had opened my mouth to
utter some dreadful pleasantry when there came a scuffling
at the door, and Grace herself appeared. Tea's hot!' she sang
out, all unsuspecting. I could not bear it. I gave her a smile,
nodded blindly towards her mother, then made my escape.
Her voice - 'Oh, Ma, what's up?' - pursued me up the
stairwell, followed by Mrs Milne's murmurs. In a moment I
was in my own room again, with the door closed hard
behind me.
The little bits and pieces I owned, of course, could be
bundled together in a second, in my sailor's bag, and a
carpet-bag that Mrs Milne had once given me. My
bedclothes I folded and placed neatly at the end of the
mattress, and the rug I shook out at the open window; the
few little pictures I had pinned to the wall I took down, and
burned in the grate. My toilet articles - a cake of cracked
yellow soap, a half-used jar of tooth-powder, a tub of facecream scented with violet - I scooped into the bin. I kept
only my toothbrush, and my hair-oil; these, together with an
unopened tin of cigarettes and a slab of chocolate, I added
to the carpet-bag - though, after a second's hesitation, I took
the chocolate out again, and left it on the mantel, where I
hoped Grace would find it. In half an hour the room looked
quite as it had when I had first moved in. There was nothing
at all to mark my stay there save the cluster of pin-holes in
the wallpaper where my pictures had been tacked, and a
scorch-mark on the bedside cabinet where once, slumbering
over a magazine, I had let a candle fall. The thought seemed
a miserable one; but I would not grow sad. I didn't go to the
window, for a last sentimental look at the view from it. I
didn't check the drawers, or go poking under the bed, or
pull the cushions from the chair. If I had left anything
behind I knew that Diana would replace it with something
Downstairs all seemed ominously still, and when I arrived
at the parlour it was to find its door shut fast against me. I
gave a knock, and turned the handle, my heart beating. Mrs
Milne was seated before the table, where I had left her. She
was less ashen than before, but still looked grim. The teapot
stood cooling on its tray, its contents unpoured; the cups lay
huddled on their nest of saucers beside it. Gracie sat stiff
and straight on the sofa, her face turned effortfully away,
her gaze fixed unswervingly - but also, I thought,
unseeingly - on the view beyond the window. I had
expected her to weep at my news; instead, it seemed to
have enraged her. Her lips were clenched and quite drained
of colour.
Mrs Milne, at lest, appeared to have reconciled herself a
little to my departure, for she addressed me now with
something like a smile. 'I'm afraid Gracie is not quite
herself,' she said. 'Your tidings've quite upset her. I told her
you'll be coming to see us, but - well - she's that stubborn.'
'Stubborn?' I said, as if amazed. 'Not our Gracie?' I took a
step towards her and reached out a hand. With something
like a yelp she thrust me away, and shuffled to the furthest
end of the sofa, her head all the time kept at its stiff,
unnatural angle. She had never shown me such displeasure
before; when I spoke to her next it was with real feeling.
'Ah, now don't be like that, Gracie, please. Won't you give
me a word, or a kiss, before I go? Won't you shake hands
with me, even? I shall miss you, so; and I should hate us to
part on bad terms, after all our fun together.' And I went on
in this fashion, half entreating, half reproachful, until Mrs
Milne rose and touched my shoulder, and said quietly, 'Best
leave her, Nance, and be on your way. You come back and
see her another day; she'll've come round by then, I don't
doubt it.'
So I had to leave, in the end, without Grace's good-bye kiss.
Her mother accompanied me to the front door, where we
stood awkwardly before the Light of the World and the blue
effeminate idol, she with her arms folded over her bosom,
me hung with bags, and still clad in my scarlet duds.
'I'm sorry, Mrs M, that this has been so sudden,' I tried; but
she hushed me.
'Never mind, dear. You must go your own way.' She was
too kind to be stern for long. I said that I had left my room
in order; that I would send her my address (I never did, I
never did!); and lastly that she was the best landlady in the
city, and that if her next girl did not appreciate her I would
make it my business to find out why.
She smiled in earnest then, and we hugged. Yet, as we drew
apart, I could sense that something was troubling her; and
as I stood on the step for my final farewell, she spoke.
'Nance,' she said, 'don't mind me asking, but - this friend: it
is a girl, ain't it?'
I snorted. 'Oh, Mrs Milne! Did you really think - ? Did you
really think that I would - ?' That I would set up house with
a man, was what she meant: me, with my trousers and my
bar-bered hair! She blushed.
'I just thought,' she said. 'A girl can get herself hooked up
by a feller, these days, quicker'n that. And what with you
moving out so sudden, I was half convinced you'd let some
gentleman or other make you a pile of promises. I should've
known better.'
My laughter rang a little hollowly then, as I thought of how
near her thoughts ran to the truth, while yet remaining so
far from it.
I took a firmer grip of my bags. I had told her I was heading
for the cab rank on the King's Cross Road, since that was
the direction in which I must walk in order to rejoin Diana's
driver. Her eyes, which had stayed dry through all her first
shock at my news, now began to glisten. She kept her place
on the doorstep as I made my slow, awkward way down
Green Street. 'Don't forget us, love!' she called out, and I
turned to wave. At the parlour window a figure had
appeared. Grace! She had unbent enough, then, to watch me
leave. I widened the arc of my wave, then caught up my cap
and flapped that at her. Two boys turning somersaults on a
broken railing stopped their game to give me a playful
salute: they took me for a soldier, I suppose, whose leave
had all run out, and Mrs Milne for my tearful, white-haired
old mother, and Gracie no doubt for my sister or my wife.
But for all that I waved and blew kisses, she made me no
sign, simply stood with her head and her hands upon the
window-pane, which pressed a whiter circle to the centre of
her pale brow, and to the end of each blunt finger. At last I
let my arm slow, and fall.
'She don't love yer much,' said one of the boys; and when I
had looked from him back to the house, Mrs Milne had
gone. Gracie, however, still stood and watched. Her gaze cold and hard as alabaster, piercing as a pin - pursued me to
the corner of the King's Cross Road. Even up the steep
climb to Percy Circus, where the windows of Green Street
are quite hidden from view, it seemed to prick and worry at
the flesh upon my back. Only when I had seated myself in
the shadowy interior of Diana's carriage, and made fast the
latch of the door, did I feel quite free of it, and secure once
again on the path of my new life.
But even then there was another reminder of my unpaid
debts to the old one. For on our drive along the Euston
Road we neared the corner of Judd Street, and all at once I
remembered the appointment I had made, to meet my new
friend Florence. It was for Friday: that, I realised, was
today. I had said that I would see her at the entrance to the
public house at six o'clock, and it must, I thought, be past
six now ... Even as I thought it, the carriage slowed in the
traffic and I saw her standing there, a little way along the
street, waiting for me. The brougham crawled still slower;
from behind the lace of its windows I could see her
perfectly, frowning to her left and right, then bending her
head to look at the watch at her bosom, then raising a hand
to tuck a curl in place. Her face, I thought, was so very
plain and kind. I had a sudden urge to tug at the latch of the
door, and race down the street to her side; I could at least, I
thought, call to the driver to stop his horse, so that I might
shout some apology to her . . .
But while I sat, anxious and undecided, the traffic grew
swift, the carriage gave a jerk, and in a moment Judd Street
and plain, kind Florence were far behind me. I could not
bear the thought, then, of asking the forbidding Mr Shilling
to turn the horse around, for all that I was his mistress for
the afternoon. And besides, what would I say to her? I
would never, I supposed, be free to meet with her again;
and I could hardly expect to have her visit me at Diana's.
She would be surprised, I thought, and cross, when I didn't
turn up: the third woman to be disappointed by me that day.
I was sorry, too - but, on reflection, not terribly sorry. Not
terribly sorry at all.
When I returned to Felicity Place - for that, I saw now, was
the name of the square in which my mistress had her home
-I was greeted with gifts. I found Diana in the upstairs
parlour, bathed and dressed at last, and with her hair in
plaits and elaborately pinned. She looked handsome, in a
gown of grey and crimson, with her waist very narrow and
her back very straight. I recalled those laces and ties I had
rumbled over the night before: there was no sign of them
now beneath the smooth sheath of her bodice. The thought
of that invisible linen and corsetry, which a maid's steady
fingers had fastened and concealed and my own trembling
hands, I guessed, would later uncover and undo, was rather
thrilling. I went to her, and put my hands on her, and kissed
her hard upon the mouth, until she laughed. I had woken
tired and sore; I had had a dismal time at Green Street; but I
did not feel dismal now - I felt limber and hot. If I had had
a cock, it would have been twitching.
We embraced for a minute or two; then she moved away
and took my hand. 'Come with me,' she said. 'I've had a
room made ready for you.'
I was at first a little dismayed to learn that I would not be
sharing Diana's chamber; but I could not stay dismayed for
long. The room to which she led me - it was a little way
along the corridor - was hardly less imposing than her own,
and quite as grand. Its walls were bare and creamy-white,
its carpets gold, its screen and bedstead of bamboo;
its dressing-table, moreover, was crowded with goods - a
cigarette-case of tortoise-shell, a pair of brushes and a
comb, a button-hook of ivory, and various jars and bottles
of oils and perfumes. A door beside the bed led to a long,
low-ceilinged closet: here, draped on a pair of wooden
shoulders, was a dressing-gown of crimson silk, to match
Diana's green one; and here, too, was the suit I had been
promised: a handsome costume of grey worsted, terribly
heavy and terribly smart. Besides this there was a set of
drawers, marked links and neckties, collars and studs.
These were all full; and on a further rack of shelves,
marked linen, there was fold after fold of white lawn shirts.
I gazed at all this, then kissed Diana very hard indeed partly, I must confess, in the hope that she would close her
eyes, and thus not see how much I was in awe of her. But
when she had gone, I fairly danced about the golden floor
in pleasure. I took the suit, and a shirt, and a collar, and a
necktie, and laid them all, in proper order, upon the bed.
Then I danced again. The bags I had brought with me from
Mrs Milne's I carried to the closet and cast, unopened, into
the farthest corner.
I wore my suit to supper; it looked, I knew, very well on
me. Diana, however, said the cut was not quite right, and
that tomorrow she would have Mrs Hooper measure me
properly, and send my details to a tailor. I thought her faith
in her housekeeper's discretion quite extraordinary; and
when that lady had left us - for, as she had at lunch, she
filled our plates and glasses, then stood in grave and (I
thought) unnerving attendance until dismissed -I said so.
Diana laughed.
There's a secret to that,' she said; 'can't you guess it?'
'You pay her a fortune in wages, I suppose.'
'Well, perhaps. But didn't you catch Mrs Hooper, gazing
through her lashes at you as she served you your soup?
Why, she was practically drooling into your plate!'
'You don't mean - you can't mean - that she is just - like us?'
She nodded: 'Of course. And as for little Blake - why, I
plucked her, poor child, from a reformatory cell. They had
sent her there for corrupting a house-maid . . .'
She laughed again, while I marvelled. Then she leaned with
her napkin to wipe a splash of gravy from my cheek.
We had been served cutlets and sweetbreads, all very fine. I
ate steadily, as I had eaten at breakfast. Diana, however, did
more drinking than eating, and more smoking than
drinking; and more watching, even, than smoking. After the
exchange about the servants, we fell silent: I found that
many of the things I said produced a kind of twitching at
her lips and brow, as if my words - sensible enough to my
ears - amused her; so at last I said no more, and neither did
she, until the only sounds were the low hiss of the gas-jets,
the steady ticking of the clock upon the mantel, and the
clink of my knife and fork against my plate. I thought
involuntarily of those merry dinners in the Green Street
parlour, with Grace and Mrs Milne. I thought of the supper
I might be having with Florence, in the Judd Street public.
But then I finished my meal, and Diana threw me one of her
pink cigarettes; and when I had grown giddy on that, she
came to me and kissed me. And then I remembered that it
was hardly for table-talk that I had been engaged.
That night our love-making was more leisurely than it had
been before - almost, indeed, tender. Yet she surprised me
by seizing my shoulder as I lay on the edge of sleep - my
body delightfully sated and my arms and legs entwined
with hers - and rousing me to wakefulness. The day had
been a day of lessons for me; now came the last of all.
'You may go, Nancy,' she said, in exactly the tone I had
heard her use on her maid and Mrs Hooper. 'I wish to sleep
alone tonight.'
It was the first time she had spoken to me as a servant, and
her words drove the lingering warmth of slumber quite
from my limbs. Yet I took my leave, uncomplaining, and
made my way to the pale room along the hall, where my
own cold bed awaited. I liked her kisses, I liked her gifts
still more; and if, to keep them, I must obey her - well, so
be it. I was used to servicing gents in Soho at a pound a
suck; obedience - to such a lady, and in such a setting seemed at that moment a very trifling labour.
Chapter 12
For all the strangeness of those first few days and nights at
Felicity Place, it did not take me long to settle into my role
there and find myself a new routine. This was quite as
indolent as the one I had enjoyed at Mrs Milne's; the
difference, of course, was that here my indolence had a
patron, a lady who paid to keep me well-fed, well-dressed
and rested, and demanded only that my vanity should have
herself, in return, as its larger target.
At Green Street I was used to waking rather early. Often
Grace would bring me tea at half-past seven or so - often,
indeed, she would clamber into the warm bed beside me,
and we would lie and talk till Mrs Milne called us to
breakfast; later I would wash, at the great sink in the
downstairs kitchen, and Grace would sometimes come and
comb my hair. At Felicity Place, I had nothing to rise for.
Breakfast was brought to me, and I received it at Diana's
side - or in my own bed, if she had sent me from her the
night before. While she was dressed I would drink my
coffee and smoke a cigarette, and yawn and rub my eyes;
frequently I would fall into a thin kind of slumber, and only
wake again when she returned, in a coat and a hat, to slip a
gloved hand beneath the counterpane and rouse me with a
pinch, or a lewd caress.
'Wake up, and kiss your mistress good-bye,' she'd say. 'I
shan't be home till supper-time. You must amuse yourself
until I return.'
Then I would frown, and grumble. 'Where are you going?'
'On a visit, to a friend.'
Take me with you!"
'Not today.'
'I might sit in the brougham while you make your call..."
'I would rather you were here, for me to return to.'
'You are cruel!'
She would smile, then kiss me. And then she would go; and
I would only sink, again, into stupidity.
When I rose at last, I would call for a bath. Diana's
bathroom was a handsome one: I might spend an hour or
more in there, soaking in the perfumed water, parting my
hair, applying the macassar, examining myself before the
glass for marks of beauty or for blemishes. In my old life I
had made do with soap, with cold-cream and lavender scent
and the occasional swipe of spit-black. Now, from the
crown of my head to the curve of my toe-nails, there was an
unguent for every part of me - oil for my eyebrows and
cream for my lashes; a jar of tooth-powder, a box of blancde-perle; polish for my fingernails and a scarlet stick to
redden my mouth; tweezers for drawing the hairs from my
nipples, and a stone to take the hard flesh from my heels.
It was quite like dressing for the halls again - except that
then, of course, I had had to change at the side of the stage,
while the band switched tempo; now, I had entire days to
prink in. For Diana was my only audience; and my hours,
when out of her company, were a kind of blank. I could not
talk to the servants - to strange Mrs Hooper, with her veiled
and slithering glances; or to Blake, who flustered me by
curtseying to me and calling me 'miss'; or to Cook, who
sent me lunch and supper, but never showed her face
outside her kitchen. I might hear their voices, raised in
mirth or dispute, if I paused at the green baize door that led
to the basement; but I knew myself apart from them, and
had my own tight beat to keep to: the bedrooms, and
Diana's parlour, and the drawing-room and library. My
mistress had said she wouldn't care to have me leave the
house, unchap-eroned - indeed, she had Mrs Hooper lock
the great front door: I heard her turn the key each time she
stepped to close it.
I did not much mind my lack of liberty; as I have said, the
warmth, the luxury, the kissing and the sleep made me
grow stupid, and lazier than ever. I might drift from room to
room, soundless and thoughtless, pausing perhaps to gaze at
the paintings on the walls; or at the quiet streets and
gardens of St John's Wood; or at myself, in Diana's various
looking-glasses. I was like a spectre - the ghost, I
sometimes imagined, of a handsome youth, who had died in
that house and still walked its corridors and chambers,
searching, searching, for reminders of the life that he had
lost there.
'What a scare you gave me, miss!' the maid might say, hand
at her heart, after she had come upon me, lingering at a
bend in the stair or in the shadows of some curtain or
alcove; but when I smiled and asked what work had she to
do there? or, did she know if the day were a fine or a dull
one? she would only blush and look frightened: 'I'm sure,
miss, I couldn't say.'
The climax of my day, the event to which my thoughts
naturally tended, and which gave direction and meaning to
the hours before it, was Diana's return. There was drama to
be had in the choosing of the chamber, and the pose, in
which I would arrange myself for her. She might find me
smoking in the library, or dozing, with unfastened buttons,
in her parlour; I would feign surprise at her entry, or let her
rouse me if I pretended sleep. My pleasure at her
appearance, however, was real enough. I at once lost that
sense of ghostliness, that feeling of waiting in the wing, and
grew warm and substantial again before the blaze of her
attention. I would light her a cigarette, pour her a drink. If
she was weary I would lead her to a chair and stroke her
temples; if she was footsore - she wore high black boots,
very tightly laced -I would bare her legs and rub the blood
back into her toes. If she was amorous - as she frequently
was - I would kiss her. She might have me caress her in the
library or drawing-room, heedless of the servants who
passed beyond the closed door, or who knocked and, at our
breathy answering silence, retired unbidden. Or she might
send orders that she was not to be disturbed, and lead me to
her parlour, to the secret drawer that held the key that
unlocked the rosewood trunk.
The opening of this still enthralled and excited me, though I
had soon grown used to handling its contents. They were,
perhaps, mild enough. There was, of course, the dildo that I
have described (though the device, or the instrument, was
what I learned, following Diana, to call it: I think the
unnecessary euphemism, with its particular odour of the
surgery or house of correction, appealed to her; only when
really heated would she call the thing by its proper name and even then she was as likely to ask for Monsieur Dildo,
or simply Moi7Sj'eur). Besides this there was an album of
photographs of big-buttocked girls with hairless parts,
bearing feathers; also a collection of erotic pamphlets and
novels, all hymning the delights of what I would call
tommistry but what they, like Diana, called Sapphic
Passion. They were gross enough, I suppose, in their way;
but I had never seen the like of them before, and would
gaze at them, squirming, till Diana laughed. Then there
were cords, and straps and switches - the kind of thing that
might be found, I suppose, in a strict governess's closet,
certainly nothing heavier. Lastly, there were more of
Diana's rose-tipped cigarettes. They contained, as I guessed
very early on, some fragrant French tobacco that was mixed
with hashish; and they were, I thought, the pleasantest
things of all, since, when used in combination with the
other items, they rendered their interesting effects more
interesting still.
I might be weary or stupid; I might be nauseous with drink;
I might be sore, at the hips, with the ache of my monthlies,
but the opening of this box, as I have said, never ceased to
stir me -I was like a dog twitching and slavering to hear his
mistress call out Bone!
And every jerk, every slaver, made Diana more complacent.
'How vain I am, of my little hoard!' she would say, as we
lay smoking in the soiled sheets of her bed. She might be
clad in nothing but a corset and a pair of purple gloves; I
would have the dildo about me, perhaps with a rope of
pearls wound round it. She would reach to the foot of the
bed, and run her hand across the gaping box, and laugh. 'Of
all the gifts I've given you,' she said once, 'this is the finest,
isn't it, isn't it? Where in London would you find its like?'
'Nowhere!' I answered. 'You're the boldest bitch in the city!'
'l am!'
'You're the boldest bitch, with the cleverest quim. If fucking
were a country - well, fuck me, you'd be its queen . . . !'
These were the words which, pricked on by my mistress, I
used now - lewd words which shocked and stirred me even
as I said them. I had never thought to use them with Kitty. I
had not fucked her, we had not frigged; we had only ever
kissed and trembled. It was not a quim or a cunt she had
between her legs - indeed, in all our nights together, I don't
believe we ever gave a name to it all...
Only let her see me now, I thought, as I lay beside Diana,
making the necklace of pearls more secure about the dildo;
and Diana herself would reach to stroke her box again, and
then lean and stroke me.
'Only see what I'm mistress of!' she would say with a sigh.
'Only see - only see what I own!'
I would draw on the cigarette till the bed seemed to tilt;
then I'd lie and laugh, while she clambered upon me. Once I
let a fag fall on the silken counterpane, and smiled to see it
smoulder as we fucked. Once I smoked so much I was sick.
Diana rang for Blake and, when she came, cried: 'Look at
my tart, Blake, resplendent even in her squalor! Did you
ever see a brute so handsome? Did you?' Blake said that she
had not; then dipped a cloth in water, and wiped my mouth.
It was Diana's vanity, at last, that broke the spell of my
confinement. I had passed a month with her - had left the
house only to stroll about the garden, had set not so much
as the toe of my boot upon a London street in all that time when she declared one night at supper that I ought to be
barbered. I looked up from my plate, thinking she meant to
take me into Soho for it; in fact, she only rang for the
servants: I had to sit in a chair with a towel about me, while
Blake held the comb and the housekeeper plied the scissors.
'Gently with her, gently!' called Diana, looking on. Mrs
Hooper came close to trim the hair above my brow, and I
felt her breath, quick and hot, upon my cheek.
But the hair-cut turned out to be only the prelude to
something better. Next morning I woke in Diana's bed to
find her dressed, and gazing at me with her old enigmatic
smile. She said, 'You must get up. I have a treat for you
today. Two treats, indeed. The first is in your bedroom.'
'A treat?' I yawned; the word had lost its charge for me,
rather. 'What is it, Diana?'
'It's a suit.'
'What kind of suit?'
'A coming-out suit.'
'Coming-out -?'
I went at once.
Now, since my very first trouser-wearing days at Mrs
Dendy's, I had sported a wonderful variety of gentlemen's
suits. From the plain to the pantomimic, from the military
to the effeminate, from the brown broad-cloth to the yellow
velveteen - as soldier, sailor, valet, renter, errand-boy,
dandy and comedy duke - I had worn them all, and worn
them wisely and rather well. But the costume that awaited
me in my bedroom that day in Diana's villa in Felicity Place
was the richest and the loveliest I ever wore; and I can
remember it still, in all its marvellous parts.
There was a jacket and trousers of bone-coloured linen, and
a waistcoat, slightly darker, with a silken back. These came
wrapped together in a box lined with velvet; in a separate
package I found three piqu6 shirts, each a shade lighter than
the one before it, and each so fine and closely woven it
shone like satin, or like the surface of a pearl.
Then there were collars, white as a new tooth; studs, of
opal, and cuff-links of gold. There was a neck-tie and a
cravat of an amber-coloured, watered silk: they gleamed
and rippled as I drew them from their tissue, and slithered
from my fingers to the floor like snakes. A flat wooden case
held gloves - one pair of kid, with covered buttons, the
other of doe-skin and fragrant as musk. In a velvet bag I
found socks and drawers and undershirts - not of flannel, as
my linen had been till now, but of knitted silk. For my head
there was a creamy homburg with a trim that matched the
neckties; for my feet there was a pair of shoes - a pair of
shoes of a chestnut leather so warm and rich I felt
compelled at once to apply my cheek to it, and then my
lips; and finally, my tongue.
A last, flimsy package I almost overlooked: this held a set
of handkerchiefs, each one as fine and fragile as the pique
shirts and each embroidered with a tiny, flowing N.K. The
suit, in all its parts, with all its delicate, harmonising
textures and hues, enchanted me; but this last detail, and the
unmistakable stamp of permanence it conferred upon my
relations with the passionate and generous mistress of my
curious new home - well, this last detail satisfied me most
of all.
I bathed then, and dressed before the glass; and then I threw
back the window-shutters, lit a cigarette, and gazed upon
myself as I stood smoking. I looked -I think I can say
without vanity - a treat. The suit, like all expensive clothes,
had a bearing and a lustre all of its own: it would have
made more or less anyone look handsome. But Diana had
ordered wisely. The bleached linen complemented the dull
gold of my hair and the fading renter's tan at my cheek and
wrists. The flash of amber at my throat set off my blue eyes
and my darkened lashes. The trousers had a vertical crease,
and made my legs seem longer and more slender than ever;
and they bulged at the buttons, where I had rolled one of the
scented doe-skin gloves. I was, I saw, almost unsettlingly
attractive. Framed by the wooden surround of the mirror,
my left leg slightly bent, one hand hanging loosely at my
thigh and the other with its fag arrested half-way on its
journey to my faintly carmined lips, I looked not like
myself at all, but like some living picture, a blond lord or
angel whom a jealous artist had captured and transfixed
behind the glass. I felt quite awed.
There came a movement at the door. I turned, and found
Diana there: she had been watching me as I gazed at
myself-I had been too taken with my own good looks to
notice her. In her hand she held a spray of flowers, and now
she came to attach them to my coat. She said, 'It should be
narcissi, I did not think of it': the flowers were violets. I
bent my head to them as she worked at my lapel, and
breathed their perfume; a single bloom, come loose from
the stem, fluttered to the carpet and was crushed beneath
her heel.
When she had finished at my breast she took my cigarette
to smoke, and stepped back to survey her handiwork - just
as Walter had done, so long ago, at Mrs Dendy's. It seemed
my fate to be dressed and fashioned and admired by others.
I didn't mind it. I only thought back to the blue serge suit of
those innocent days, and gave a laugh.
The laugh brought a hardness to my eyes, that made them
sparkle. Diana saw, and nodded complacently.
'We shall be a sensation,' she said. 'They will adore you, I
know it.'
'Who?' I asked then. 'Who have you dressed me for?'
Tm taking you out, to meet my friends. I'm taking you,' she
put a hand to my cheek, 'to my club.'
The Cavendish Ladies' Club it was called; and it was
situated in Sackville Street, just up from Piccadilly. I knew
the road well, I knew all those roads; yet I had never
noticed the building - the slender, grey-faced building - to
which Diana now had Shilling drive us. Its step, I suppose,
is rather shadowy, and its name-plate is small, and its door
is narrow; having visited it once, however, I never missed it
Go to Sackville Street today, if you like, and try to spot it:
you shall walk the length of the pavement, quite three or
four times. But when you find the grey-faced building, rest
a moment looking up at it; and if you see a lady cross its
shadowy threshold, mark her well.
She will walk - as I walked with Diana that day - into a
lobby: the lobby is smart-looking, and in it sits a neat, plain,
ageless woman behind a desk. When I first went there, this
woman was named Miss Hawkins. She was ticking entries
in a ledger as we arrived, but looked up when she saw
Diana, and gave a smile. When she saw me, the smile grew
She said, 'Mrs Lethaby, ma'am, how pleasant! Mrs Jex is
expecting you in the day-room, I believe.' Diana nodded,
and reached to sign her name upon a sheet. Miss Hawkins
glanced again at me. 'Shall the gentleman be waiting for
you, here?' she said.
Diana's pen moved smoothly on, and she did not raise her
eyes. She said: 'Don't be tiresome, Hawkins. This is Miss
King, my companion.' Miss Hawkins looked harder at me,
then blushed.
'Well, I'm sure, Mrs Lethaby, I can't speak for the ladies;
but some might consider this a little - irregular.'
'We are here,' answered Diana, screwing the pen together,
'for the sake of the irregular.' Then she turned and looked
me over, raising a hand to twitch at my necktie, licking the
tip of one glove-clad finger to smooth at my brow, and
finally plucking the hat from my head and arranging my
The hat she left for Miss Hawkins to deal with. Then she
put her arm securely through mine, and led me up a flight
of stairs into the day-room.
This room, like the lobby below it, is grand. I cannot say
what colour they have it now; in those days it was panelled
in golden damask, and its carpets were of cream, and its
sofas blue ... It was decked, in short, in all the colours of
my own most handsome self - or, rather, I was decked to
match it. This idea, I must confess, was disconcerting; for a
second, Diana's generosity began to seem less of a
compliment than I had thought it, posed that morning
before the glass.
But all performers dress to suit their stages, I recalled. And
what a stage was this - and what an audience!
There were about thirty of them, I think - all women; all
seated at tables, bearing drinks and books and papers. You
might have passed any one of them upon the street, and
thought nothing; but the effect of their appearance all
combined was rather queer. They were dressed, not
strangely, but somehow distinctly. They wore skirts - but
the kind of skirts a tailor might design if he were set, for a
dare, to sew a bustle for a gent. Many seemed clad in
walking-suits or riding-habits. Many wore pince-nez, or
carried monocles on ribbons. There were one or two rather
startling coiffures; and there were more neckties than I had
ever before seen brought together at an exclusively female
I did not notice all these details at once, of course; but the
room was a large one and, since Diana took her time to lead
me across it, I had leisure to gaze about me as she did so.
We walked through a hush that was thick as bristling velvet
- for, at our appearance at the door the lady members had
turned their heads to stare, and then had goggled. Whether,
like Miss Hawkins, they took me for a gentleman; or
whether - like Diana - they had seen through my disguise at
once, I cannot say. Either way, there was a cry - 'Good
gracious!' - and then another exclamation, more lingering:
'My word..." I felt Diana stiffen at my side, with pure
Then came another shout, as a lady at a table in the farthest
corner rose to her feet. 'Diana, you old roue! You have done
it at last!' She gave a clap. Beside her, two more ladies
looked on, pink-faced. One of them had a monocle, and
now she fixed it to her eye.
Diana placed me before them all, and presented me - more
graciously than she had introduced me to Miss Hawkins,
but again as her 'companion'; and the ladies laughed. The
first of them, the one who had risen to greet us, now seized
my hand. Her fingers held a stubby cigar.
'This, Nancy dear,' said my mistress, 'is Mrs Jex. She is
quite my oldest friend in London - and quite the most
disreputable. Everything she tells you will be designed to
I bowed to her. I said, 'I hope so, indeed.' Mrs Jex gave a
'But it speaks!' she cried. 'All this' - she gestured to my face,
my costume - 'and the creature even speaks!'
Diana smiled, and raised a brow. 'After a fashion,' she said.
I blinked, but Mrs Jex still held my hand, and now she
squeezed it. 'Diana is brutal to you, Miss Nancy, but you
must not mind it. Here at the Cavendish we have been
positively panting to see you and make you our particular
friend. You must call me "Maria"' - she pronounced it the
old-fashioned way - 'and this is Evelyn, and Dickie. Dickie,
you can see, likes to think of herself as the boy of the place.'
I bowed to the ladies in turn. The former showed me a
smile; the one named Dickie (this was the one with the
monocle: I am sure it was of plain glass) only gave a toss to
her head, and looked haughty.
'This is the new Callisto then, is it?' she said.
She wore a boiled shirt and a bow-tie, and her hair, though
long and bound, was sleek with oil. She was about two- or
three-and-thirty, and her waist was thick; but her upper lip,
at least, was dark as a boy's. They would have called her
terribly handsome, I guessed, in about 1880.
Maria pressed my fingers again, and rolled her eyes; then
she tilted her head, and when I bent to her - for she was
rather short - she said, 'Now, my dear, you must satisfy our
appetite. We want the whole sordid story of your encounter
with Diana. She herself will tell us nothing - only that the
night was warm; that the streets were gaudy; that the moon
was reeling through the clouds like a drunken woman
looking for lovers. Tell us, Miss Nancy, tell us, do! Was the
moon really reeling through the clouds, like a drunken
woman looking for her lovers?' She took a puff of her cigar,
and studied me. Evelyn and Dickie leaned and waited. I
looked from them back to Maria; and then I swallowed.
'It was,' I said at last, 'if Diana said it was.'
And at that, Maria gave a startling laugh, low and loud and
rapid as the rattle of a road-drill; and Diana took my arm
and made a space for me upon the sofa, and called for a
waitress to bring us drinks.
At the rest of the tables the ladies still looked on - some of
them, I could not help but notice, rather fastidiously. There
had come some murmurs, and some whispers; also a titter
or two and a gasp. No one in our party paid the slightest
heed to any of it. Maria kept her eyes fixed upon myself,
and when our drinks arrived, she leered at me over her
glass: 'To both ends of the busk!' she said, and gave me a
wink. Diana had her face turned, to catch a story from the
lady named Evelyn. She was saying, 'Such a scandal,
Diana, you never heard! She has vowed herself to seven
women, and sees them all on different days; one of them is
her sister-in-law! She has put together an album - my dear,
I nearly died at the sight of it! - full of bits and pieces of
stuff that she has cut off them or pulled out of them:
eyelashes, and toe-nail clippings - old sanitary wrappings,
from what I could see of it; and she has hair -'
'Hair, Diana,' broke in Dickie meaningfully.
'- hair, which she has had made up into rings and aigrettes.
Lord Myers saw a brooch, and asked her where she bought
it, and Susan told him it was from the tail of a fox, and said
she would have one made for him, for his wife! Can you
imagine? Now Lady Myers is to be found at, all the
fashionable parties with a sprig of Susan Dacre's sister-inlaw's quim-hair at her bosom!'
Diana smiled. 'And Susan's husband knows it all, and does
not mind it?'
'Mind it? It is he who pays her jewellers' bills! You may
hear him boasting - I have heard him myself - of how he
plans to rename the estate New Lesbos.'
'New Lesbos!' Diana said mildly. Then she yawned. 'With
that tired old lesbian Susan Dacre in it, it might just as well
be the original ..." She turned to me, and her voice dropped
a tone. 'Light me a cigarette, would you, child?'
I took two fags from the tortoise-shell case in my breast
pocket, lit them both at my own lip, then passed one over.
The ladies watched me - indeed, even while they laughed
and chattered, they studied all my movements, all my parts.
When I leaned to knock the ash from my cigarette, they
blinked. When I ran a hand over the stubble at my hairline,
they coloured. When I parted my trouser-clad legs and
showed the bulge there, Maria and Evelyn, as one, gave a
shift in their chairs; and Dickie reached for her brandy glass
and disposed of its contents with one savage swig.
After a moment, Maria came close again. She said, 'Now,
Miss Nancy, we are still waiting for your history. We want
to know all about you, and so far you have done nothing but
I said, 'There's nothing to know. You must ask Diana.'
'Diana speaks for the sake of cleverness, not truth. Tell me
now' - she had grown confiding - 'where were you born?
Was it some hard place? Was it some rookery, where you
must sleep ten to a bed with your sisters?'
'A wokery!’ I thought very suddenly, and more vividly than
I had in months, of our old front parlour at home - of the
cloth with the fringe that dangled, fluttering, above the
hearth. I said, 'I was born in Kent, in Whitstable.' Maria
only stared. I said again, 'Whitstable - where the oysters
come from.'
At that, she threw back her head. 'Why my dear, you're a
mermaid! Diana, did you know it? A Whitstable mermaid! though thankfully,' and here she placed her free hand upon
my knee, and patted it, 'thankfully, without the tail. That
would never do, now would it?"
I could not answer. Hot into my head after the image of our
parlour had come the memory of Kitty, at her dressingroom door. Miss Mermaid, she had called me; and she had
said it again that time in Stamford Hill, when she had heard
me weeping, come, and kissed my tears . . .
I gave a gulp, and put my cigarette to my lips. It was
smoked right down and almost burned me; and as I fumbled
with it, it fell. It struck the sofa, bounced, then rolled
between my legs. I reached for it - that made the ladies stare
again, and twitch -but it was caught, still smouldering,
between my buttock and the chair. I leapt up, found the fag
at last, then pulled at the linen that covered my bum. I said,
'Hell, if I haven't scorched a hole through these dam'
The words came out louder than I meant them to; and as
they did, there was an answering cry from the room at my
back: 'Really, Mrs Lethaby, this is intolerable!' A lady had
risen, and was approaching our table.
'I must protest, Mrs Lethaby,' she said when she arrived at
it, 'I really must protest, on behalf of all the ladies present,
and absent, at the very great damage you are inflicting upon
our club!'
Diana raised languid eyes to her. 'Damage, Miss Bruce?
Are you referring to the presence of my companion, Miss
'I am, ma'am.'
'You don't care for her?'
'I don't care for her language, ma'am, or for her clothes!'
She herself wore a silk shirt with a cummerbund and a
cravat; in the cravat there was a pin, cast in silver, of the
head of a horse. Now she stood expectantly at Diana's side;
and after a moment, Diana sighed.
'Well,' she said. 'I see we must bow to the members'
pleasure.' She rose, then drew me up beside her and leaned
rather ostentatiously upon my arm. 'Nancy, dear, you
costume has proved too bold for the Cavendish after all. It
seems that I must take you home and rid you of it. Now,
who will ride with us to Felicity Place, to catch the sport..."
There was a ripple around the room. Maria rose at once,
and reached for her walking-cane. 'Tantivy, tantivy!' she
cried. Then: 'Ho, Satin!' I heard a yelp, and from beneath
her chair there came - what I had not seen before, as it lay
dozing behind the curtain of her skirts - a handsome little
whippet, on a pig-skin leash.
Dickie and Evelyn rose too, then. Diana inclined her head
to Miss Bruce, and I made her a deeper bow. All eyes had
been upon us as we made our entrance; all eyes were on us
still, as we headed for the exit. I heard Miss Bruce return to
her seat, and someone call, 'Quite right, Vanessa!' But
another lady held my gaze as I passed her, and winked; and
from a table near the door a woman rose to say to Diana
that she hoped that Miss King's trousers had not been too
desperately singed .. .
The trousers were rather spoiled; back at Felicity Place,
Diana had me walk and bend before Maria and Evelyn and
Dickie, in order to decide it. She said she would order me
another pair, just the same.
'What a find, Diana!' said Maria, as Evelyn patted the cloth.
She said it as she might say it about a statue or a clock that
Diana had picked up for a song in some grim market. She
didn't care whether I overheard or not. Why should it matter
that I did? She meant it, she meant it! There was admiration
in her eyes. And being admired, by tasteful ladies - well, I
knew it wasn't being loved. But it was something. And I
was good at it.
Who would ever have thought I should be so good at it!
'Take off your shirt, Nancy,' said Diana then, 'and let the
ladies see your linen.'
I did so, and Maria cried again, 'What a find!'
Chapter 13
Diana's wider circle of friends, I believe, thought our union
a fantastic one. I would sometimes see them look between
us, then overhear their murmurs - 'Diana's caprice,' they
called me, as if I were an enthusiasm for a wonderful food,
that a sensitive palate would tire of. Diana herself, however,
once having found me, seemed only increasingly
disinclined to let me go. With that one brief visit to the
Cavendish Club she had launched me on my new career as
her permanent companion. Now came more excursions,
more visits, more trips; and more suits for me to make them
in. I grew complacent. I had once sat drooping on her
parlour chair, expecting her to send me home with a
sovereign. Now, when the ladies whispered of 'this freak of
Diana Lethaby's', I brushed the lint from the sleeve of my
coat, drew my monogrammed hankie from my pocket, and
smiled. When the autumn of 1892 became the winter, and
then the spring of '93, and still I kept my favoured place at
Diana's side, the ladies' whispers faded. I became at last not
Diana's caprice; but simply, her boy.
'Come to supper, Diana.'
'Come for breakfast, Diana.'
'Come at nine, Diana; and bring the boy.'
For it was always as a boy that I travelled with her now,
even when we ventured into the public world, the ordinary
world beyond the circle of Cavendish Sapphists, the world
of shops and supper-rooms and drives in the park. To
anyone who asked after me, she would boldly introduce me
as 'My ward, Neville King'; she had several requests for
introductions, I believe, from ladies with eligible daughters.
These she turned aside: 'He's an Anglo-Catholic, ma'am,'
she'd whisper, 'and destined for the Church. This is his final
Season, before taking Holy Orders ..."
It was with Diana that I returned to the theatre again flinching to find her lead me to a box beside the foot-lights,
flinching again as the chandeliers were dimmed. But they
were terribly grand, the theatres she preferred. They were lit
with electricity rather than gas; and the crowd sat hushed. I
could not see the pleasure in it. The plays I liked well
enough; but I would more often turn my gaze to the
audience - and there was always plenty of eyes and glasses,
of course, that were lifted from the stage and fastened on
me. I saw several faces that I knew from my old renter
days. One time I stood washing my hands in the lavatory of
a theatre and felt a gent look me over - he didn't know that
he had had my lips on him already, in an alley off Jermyn
Street; later I saw him in the audience, with his Wife. One
time, too, I saw Sweet Alice, the mary-anne who had been
so kind to me in Leicester Square. He also sat in a box; and
when he recognised me, he blew a kiss. He was with two
gents: I raised my brows, he rolled his eyes. Then he saw
who it was I sat with - It was Diana and Maria -and he
stared. I gave a shrug, he looked thoughtful - then rolled his
eyes again, as much as to say, What a business!
To all these places, as I have said, I went clad as a boy —
indeed, the only time I ever dressed as a girl, now, was for
our visits to the Cavendish. This was the single spot in the
city at which Diana might have put me in trousers and not
cared who knew it; but after Miss Bruce's complaint they
introduced a new rule, and ever after I was taken there in
skirts - Diana having something made up for me, I forget
the cut and colour of it now. At the club I would sit and
drink and smoke, and be flirted with by Maria, and eyed by
other ladies, while Diana met friends or wrote letters. She
did this very often, for she was known - I suppose I might
have guessed it, in a way - as a philanthropist, and ladies
courted her for schemes. She gave money to certain
charities. She sent books to girls in prisons. She was
involved in the producing of a magazine for the Suffrage,
named Shafts. She attended to all this, with me at her side.
If I leaned to pick up a paper or a list and idly read it, she
would take the sheet away, as if gazing too hard at too
many words might tire me. In the end, I would settle on the
cartoons in Punch.
These, then, were my public appearances. There were not
too many of them -I am describing here a period that lasted
about a year. Diana kept me close, for the most part, and
displayed me at home. She liked to limit the numbers who
gazed at me, she said; she said she feared that like a
photograph I might fade, from too much handling.
When I say display, of course, I mean it: it was part of
Diana's mystery, to make real the words that other people
said in metaphor or jest. I had posed for Maria and Dickie
and Evelyn in my trousers with the scorch-mark and my
under-things of silk. When they came a second time, with
another lady, Diana had me pose for them again in a
different suit. After that, it became a kind of sport with her,
to put me in a new costume and have me walk before her
guests, or among them, filling glasses, lighting cigarettes.
Once she dressed me as a footman, in breeches and a
powdered wig. It was the costume I had worn for
Cinderella, more or less - though my breeches at the Brit
had not been so snug, nor so large at the groin.
The freak with the breeches inspired her further. She grew
tired of gentlemen's suits; she took to displaying me in
masquerade - had me set up, behind a little velvet curtain in
the drawing-room. This would happen about once a week.
Ladies would come for dinner and I would eat with them, in
trousers; but while they lingered over their coffee and the
trimming of their fags I would leave them, and slip up to
my room to change my gear. By the time they made their
way into the drawing-room I would be behind the curtain,
striking some pose; and when she was ready, Diana would
pull a tasselled cord and uncover me.
I might be Perseus, with a curved sword and a head of the
Medusa, and sandals with straps that were buckled at the
knee. I might be Cupid, with wings and a bow. I was once
St Sebastian, tied to a stump - I remember what a job it was
to fasten the arrows so they would not droop.
Then, another night I was an Amazon. I carried the Cupid's
bow, but this time had one breast uncovered; Diana rouged
the nipple. Next week - she said I had shown one, I might
as well show both - I was the French Marianne, with a
Phyrgian cap and a flag. The week after that I was Salome:
I had the Medusa head again, but on a plate, and with a
beard stuck on it; and while the ladies clapped I danced
down to my drawers.
And the week after that - well, that week I was
Hermaphroditus. I wore a crown of laurel, a layer of silver
greasepaint - and nothing else save, strapped to my hips,
Diana's Monsieur Dildo. The ladies gasped to see him.
That made him quiver.
And as the quiver did its usual work on me, I thought of
Kitty. I wondered if she was still wearing suits and a topper,
still singing songs like 'Sweethearts and Wives'.
Then Diana came, and put a pink cigarette between my lips,
and led me amongst the ladies and had them stroke the
leather. I cannot say if it was Kitty I thought of then, or
even Diana herself. I believe I thought I was a renter again,
in Piccadilly - or, not a renter, but a renter's gent. For when
I twitched and cried out there were smiles in the shadows;
and when I shuddered, and wept, there was laughter.
I could help none of it. It was all Diana's doing. She was so
bold, she was so passionate, she was so devilishly clever.
She was like a queen, with her own queer court -I saw it, at
those parties. Women sought her out, and watched her.
They brought presents, 'for your collection' - her collection
was talked about, and envied! When she made a gesture,
they raised their heads to catch it. When she spoke, they
listened. It was her voice, I think, which snared them those low, musical tones, which had once lured me from
my random midnight wanderings into the heart of her own
dark world. Again and again I heard arguments crumble at a
cry or a murmur from Diana's throat; again and again the
scattered conversations of a crowded room would falter and
die, as one speaker after another surrendered the slender
threads of some anecdote or fancy to catch at the more
compelling cadences of hers.
Her boldness was contagious. Women came to her, and
grew giddy. She was like a singer, shivering glasses. She
was like a cancer, she was like a mould. She was like the
hero of one of her own gross romances - you might set her
in a chamber with a governess and a nun, and in an hour
they would have torn out their own hair, to fashion a whip.
I sound weary of her. I was not weary of her then. How
could I have been? We were a perfect kind of double act.
She was lewd, she was daring - but who made that daring
visible? Who could testify to the passion of her; to the
sympathetic power of her; to the rare, enchanted
atmosphere of her house in Felicity Place, where ordinary
ways and rules seemed all suspended, and wanton riot
reigned? Who, but I?
I was proof of all her pleasures. I was the stain left by her
lust. She must keep me, or lose everything.
And I must keep her, or have nothing. I could not imagine a
life beyond her shaping. She had awakened particular
appetites in me; and where else, I thought, but with Diana,
in the company of Sapphists - where else would those queer
hungers be assuaged?
I have spoken of the peculiarly timeless quality of my new
life, of my removal from the ordinary workings of the
hours, the days and the weeks. Diana and I often made love
until dawn, and ate breakfast at nightfall; or else, we woke
at the regular time, but stayed abed with the drapes closedrawn, and took our lunch by candle-light. Once we rang
for Blake, and she came in her night-gown: it was half-past
three, we had woken her from her bed. Another time I was
roused by bird-song: I squinted at the lines of light around
the shutters, and realised I had not seen the sun for a week.
In a house kept uniformly warm by the labour of servants,
and with a carriage to collect us and deposit us where we
wished, even the seasons lost their meanings or gained new
ones. I knew winter had arrived only when Diana's
walking-dresses changed from silk to corduroy, her cloaks
from grenadine to sable; and when my own closet rail
sagged with astrakhan, and camel's-hair, and tweed.
But there was one anniversary from the old order of things
that, even in the enchanted atmosphere of Felicity Place,
surrounded by so much narcotic luxury, I could not quite
forget. One day, when I had been Diana's lover for a little
less than a year, I was woken by the rustle of news-sheet.
My mistress was beside me with the morning paper, and I
opened my eyes upon a headline. Home Rule Bill, it said;
Irish to Demonstrate June 3rd. I gave a cry. It was not the
words which arrested me - they meant nothing to me. The
date, however, was as familiar as my own name. June the
third was my birthday; in a week I should be twenty-three.
'Twenty-three!' said Diana when I told her, in a kind of
delight. 'What a really glorious age that is! With your youth
still hot upon you, like a lover in a pant; and time with his
face around the curtain, peeping on.' She could talk like
this, even first thing in the morning; I only yawned. But
then she said that we must celebrate - and at that, I looked
livelier. 'What shall we do,' she said, 'that we haven't done
before? Where shall I take you . . . ?'
Where she hit upon, in the end, was the Opera.
The idea sounded a terrible one to me, though I did not like
to show it - I had not yet grown sulky with her, as I was
later to do. And I was still too much of a child, not to be
anything other than enchanted with my own birthday, when
it finally arrived; and of course, there were presents - and
presents never lost their charm.
I was given them at breakfast, in two gold parcels. The first
was large, and held a cloak - a proper opera-going cloak, it
was, and very grand; but then, I had expected that, and
hardly considered it a gift at all. The second parcel,
however, proved more marvellous. It was small and light: I
knew at once it must be some piece of jewellery - perhaps,
a pair of links; or a stud for my cravats; or a ring. Dickie
wore a ring on the smallest finger of her left hand, and I had
often admired it - yes, I was sure it must be a ring, like
But it was not a ring. It was a watch, of silver, on a slender
strap of leather. It had two dark arms to show the minutes
and the hours, and a faster, sweeping arm to count the
seconds. Upon the face, there was glass: the arms were
moved by the winder. I turned it in my hands, Diana
smiling as I did so. 'It's for your wrist,' she said at last.
I gazed at her in wonder - people never wore wrist-watches
then, it was marvellously exotic and new - then tried to
buckle the watch upon my arm. I could not manage it, of
course: like so many of the things in Felicity Place, you
really needed a maid to do it properly. In the end, Diana
fastened it for me; and then we both sat gazing at the little
face, the sweeping hand, and listened to the ticking.
I said, 'Diana, it's the most wonderful thing I ever saw!', and
she pinked, and looked pleased: she was a bitch, but she
was human, too.
Later, when Maria came to call, I showed her the watch and
she nodded and smiled at it, stroking my wrist beneath the
leather of the strap. Then she laughed. 'My dear, the time is
wrong! You have it set at seven, and it's only a quarter-past
I looked at the face again, and gave a frown of surprise. I
had been wearing it as a kind of bracelet, only: it had not
occurred to me to tell the time with it. Now I moved the
arms to 4 and 3, for Maria's sake - but there was really no
need, of course, for me ever to wind it at all.
The watch was my finest gift; but there was a present, too,
from Maria herself: a walking-cane, of ebony, with a tassel
at the top and a silver tip. It went very well with my new
opera gear; indeed, we made a very striking couple that
night, Diana and I, for her costume was of black and white
and silver, to match my own. It came from Worth's: I
thought we must look just as if we had stepped out from the
pages of a fashion paper. I made sure, when walking, to
hold my left arm very straight, so the watch would show.
We dined in a room at the Solferino. We dined with Dickie
and Maria - Maria brought Satin, her whippet, and fed him
dainties from a plate. The waiters had been told it was my
birthday, and fussed around me, offering wine. 'How old is
the young gentleman today?' they asked Diana; and the way
they asked it showed they thought me younger than I was.
They might, I suppose, have taken Diana for my mother;
for various reasons, the idea was not a nice one. Once,
though, I had stopped at a shoe-black while Diana and her
friends stood near to watch it, and the man - catching sight
of Dickie and reading tommishness, as many regular people
do, as a kind of family likeness - asked me if she, Dickie,
were not my Auntie, taking me out for the day; and it had
been worth being mistaken for a schoolboy, for the sake of
her expression. She once or twice tried to compete with me,
on the question of suits. The night of my birthday, for
example, she wore a shirt with cuff-links and, above her
skirt, a short gent's cloak. At her throat, however, she had a
jabot - I should never have worn anything so effeminate.
She did not know it - she would have been horrified to
know it! - but she looked like nothing so much as a weary
old mary-anne - one of the kind you see sometimes holding
court, with younger boys, on Piccadilly: they have rented so
long they're known as queens.
Our supper was a very fine one, and when it was over
Diana sent a waiter for a cab. As I have said, I had thought
her plan not much of a treat; but even I could not help being
excited as our hansom joined the line of rocking carriages
at the door of the Royal Opera, and we - Diana, Maria,
Dickie and I - entered the crush of gentlemen and ladies in
the lobby. I had never been here before; had never, in a year
of fitful chaperoning, been part of such a rich and
handsome crowd - the gents, like me, all in cloaks and silk
hats and carrying glasses; the ladies in diamonds, and
wearing gloves so high and slender they might all have just
left off dipping their arms, to the armpit, in tubs of milk.
We stood jostling in the lobby for a moment or two, Diana
exchanging nods with certain ladies that she recognised,
Maria holding Satin at her bosom, out of the crush of heels
and trains and sweeping cloaks. Dickie said she would fetch
us a tray of drinks, and went off to do so. Diana said, 'Take
our coats, Neville, will you?' nodding to a counter where
two men stood, in uniform, receiving cloaks. She turned to
let me draw the coat from her, Maria did the same, and I
picked my way across the lobby with them, then paused to
unfasten my own cloak -thinking all the time, only, what a
handsome gathering it was, and how well I looked in it! and
making sure that the coats I carried weren't falling over my
wrist and obscuring the watch. The counter had a queue at
it, and as I waited I looked idly at the men whose job it was
to collect the cloaks from the gents, and give them tickets.
One of them was slim, with a sallow face - he might have
been Italian. The other man was a black man. When I
reached the desk at last and he tilted his face to the
garments I gave him, I saw that he was Billy-Boy, my old
smoking-partner from the Brit.
At first, I only stared; I think, actually, that I was
considering how I might best make my escape before he
saw me. But then, when he tugged at the coats and I failed
to release them, he raised his eyes - and I knew that he
didn't recognise me at all, only wondered why I hesitated;
and the thought made me terribly sorry. I said, 'Bill', and he
looked harder. Then he said: 'Sir?'
I swallowed. I said again, 'Bill. Don't you remember me?"
Then I leaned and lowered my voice. 'It's Nan,' I said, 'Nan
King.' His face changed. He said, 'My God!'
Behind me, the queue had grown longer; now there came a
cry: 'What's the delay there?' Bill took the coats from me at
last, walked quickly to a hook with them, and gave me a
ticket. Then he stepped a little to one side, leaving his
friend to struggle with the cloaks, for a minute, on his own.
I moved too, away from the jostling gents, and we stood
facing each other across the desk, shaking our heads. His
brow was shiny with sweat. His uniform was a white bumshaver jacket and a cheap bow-tie, of scarlet.
He said, 'Lord, Nan, but you gave me a fright! I thought you
must be some gentleman I owed money to.' He looked at
my trousers, my jacket, my hair. 'What are you up to,
wandering about like that, here?’ He wiped his brow, then
looked about him. 'Are you here with an agent? You're not
in the show, Nan - are you?'
I shook my head; and then I said, very quietly, 'You mustn't
say "Nan" now, Bill. The fact is -' The fact was, I hadn't
thought what I would tell him. I hesitated; but it was
impossible to lie to him: 'Bill, I'm living as a boy just now.'
'As a boy?’ He said it loudly; then put a hand before his
mouth. Even so, one or two of the grumbling gents in the
queue turned their heads. I edged a little further away from
them. I said again: 'I'm living as a boy, with a lady who
takes care of me . . .' And at that, at last, he looked a little
more knowing, and nodded.
Behind him, the Italian dropped a gentleman's hat, and the
gentleman tutted. Bill said, 'Can you wait?' and stepped to
help his friend by taking another couple of cloaks. Then he
moved towards me again. The Italian looked sour.
I glanced over to Diana and Maria. The lobby had emptied
a bit; they stood waiting for me. Maria had placed Satin on
the floor and he was scratching at her skirt. Diana turned to
catch my eye. I looked at Bill.
'How are you, then?' I asked him.
He looked rueful, and lifted his hand: there was a weddingring on it. He said, 'Well, I am married now, for a start!'
'Married! Oh, Bill, I am happy for you! Who's the girl? It's
not Flora? Not Flora, our old dresser?' He nodded, and said
it was.
'It is on account of Flora,' he added, 'that I am working here.
She has a job on round the corner, a month at the Old Mo.
She is still, you know' - he looked suddenly rather awkward
- 'she is still, you know, dressing Kitty ..."
I stared at him. There came more mutters from the queue of
gents, and more sour looks from the Italian, and he stepped
back again to help with the cloaks and hats and tickets. I
lifted a hand to my head, and put my fingers through my
hair, and tried to understand what he had told me. He was
married to Flora, and Flora was still with Kitty; and Kitty
had a spot at the Middlesex Music Hall. And that was about
three streets away from where I stood now.
And Kitty, of course, was married to Walter.
Are they happy? I wanted to call to Bill then. Does she talk
of me, ever? Does she think of me? Does she miss me? But
when he returned - looking even more flustered and damp
about the brow - I said only, 'How's - how's the act, Bill?'
The act?' He sniffed. 'Not so good, I don't think. Not so
good as the old days ..."
We gazed at one another. I looked harder at his face, and
saw that he had gained a bit of weight beneath his chin, and
that the flesh about his eyes was rather darker than I knew
it. Then the Italian called, 'Bill, will you come?' And Bill
said that he must go.
I nodded, and held my hand out to him. As he shook it, he
seemed to hesitate again. Then he said, very quickly, 'You
know, we was all really sorry, when you took off like that,
from the Brit.' I shrugged. 'And Kitty,' he went on, 'well,
Kitty was sorriest of all of us. She put notices, with Walter,
in the Era and the Ref, week after week. Did you never see
'em, Nan, those notices?'
'No, Bill, I never did.'
He shook his head. 'And now, here you are, dressed up like
a lord!' But he gave my suit a dubious glance, and added:
'You're sure though, are you, that you're doing all right?'
I didn't answer him. I only looked over to Diana again. She
was tilting her head to gaze after me; beside her stood
Maria, and Satin, and Dickie. Dickie held our tray of
drinks, and had placed her monocle at her eye. She said,
'The wine will warm, Diana,' in a pettish sort of voice: the
lobby was thinned of people, I could hear her very clearly.
Diana tilted her head again: 'What is the boy doing?'
'He is talking to the nigger,' answered Maria, 'at the cloaks!'
I felt my cheeks flame red, and looked quickly back at Bill.
His gaze had followed mine, but now had been caught by a
gentleman offering a coat, and he was lifting the garment
over the counter, and already turning with it to the row of
'Good-bye, Bill,' I said, and he nodded over his shoulder,
and gave me a sad little smile of farewell. I took a step
away -but then, very quickly, I returned to the counter and
put my hand upon his arm. I said: 'What's Kitty's place, on
the bill at the Mo?'
'Her place?' He thought about it, folding another cloak. 'I'm
not sure. Second half, near the start, half-past nine or so ..."
Then Maria's voice came calling: 'Is there trouble, Neville,
over the tip?'
I knew then that if I lingered near him any longer some
terrible sort of scene would ensue. I didn't look at him again
but went back to Diana at once, and said it was nothing, I
was sorry. But when she raised a hand to smooth back the
hair I had unsettled, I flinched, feeling Bill's eyes upon me;
and when she pulled my arm through hers, and Maria
stepped around me to take my other arm, the flesh upon my
back seemed to give a kind of shudder, as if there was a
pistol pointed at it.
The hall itself, which was so grand and glorious, I only
gazed at rather dully. We did not have a box - there had not
been time to book a box - but our seats were very good
ones, in the centre of one of the front rows of the stalls. I
had made us late, however, and the stalls were almost full:
we had to stumble over twenty pairs of legs to reach our
seats. Dickie spilled her wine. Satin snapped at a lady with
a fox-fur around her throat. Diana, when she sat at last, was
thin-lipped and self-conscious: this was not the kind of
entrance she had planned for us, at all.
And I sat, numb to her, numb to all of it. I could think only
of Kitty. That she was still in the halls, in her act with
Walter. That Bill saw her daily - would see her later, after
the show, when he fetched Flora. That even now, while the
actors in the opera we had come to see were putting on their
grease-paint, she was sitting in a dressing-room three streets
away, putting on hers.
As I thought all this, the conductor appeared, and was
clapped; the lights went down, and the crowd grew silent.
When the music started and the curtain went up at last, I
gazed at the stage in a kind of stupor. And when the singing
began, I flinched. The opera was Figaro's Wedding.
I can remember hardly any of it. I thought only of Kitty.
My seat seemed impossibly narrow and hard, and I shifted
and turned in it, till Diana leaned to whisper that I must be
still. I thought of all the times I had walked through the
city, fearful of turning a corner and seeing Kitty there; I
thought of the disguise I had adopted, to avoid her. Indeed,
avoiding Kitty had become, in my renter days, a kind of
second nature to me, so that there were whole areas of
London through which I automatically never passed, streets
at which I didn't have to pause, for thought, before I turned
away to find another. I was like a man with a bruise or a
broken limb, who learns to walk in a crowd so that the
wound might not be jostled. Now, knowing that Kitty was
so near, it was as if I was compelled to press the bruise, to
twist the shrieking limb, myself. The music grew louder,
and my head began to ache; my seat seemed narrower than
ever. I looked at my watch, but the lights were too low for
me to read it; I had to tilt it so that its face caught the glow
from the stage, and in doing so, my elbow caught Diana and
made her sigh with pique, and glare at me. The watch
showed five to nine - how glad I was that I had wound it,
now! The opera was just at that ridiculous point where the
countess and the maid have forced the principal boy into a
frock and locked him in a closet, and the singing and the
rushing about is at its worst. I turned to Diana. I said,
'Diana, I can't bear it. I shall have to wait for you in the
lobby.' She put a hand out to grip my arm, but I shook her
away, and rose and - saying 'Pardon me, oh! pardon me!' to
every tutting lady and gent whose legs I stumbled over or
feet I trampled, I made my halting way along the row,
towards the usher and the door.
Outside, the lobby was wonderfully quiet after all the
shrieking on the stage. At the coat-desk the Italian man sat
with a paper. When I went over to him, he sniffed: 'He ain't
here,' he said, when I asked after Bill. 'He don't stay once
the show starts. Did you want your cloak?'
I said I didn't. I left the theatre, and headed for Drury Lane very conscious of my suit, and the shine on my shoes, and
the flower at my lapel. When I reached the Middlesex I
found a group of boys outside it studying the programme
and commenting on the acts. I went and peered over their
shoulders, looking for the names I wanted, and a number.
Walter Waters and Kitty, I saw at last: it gave me a shock to
know that Kitty had lost her Butler, and was working under
Walter's old stage-name. They were, as Bill had said,
placed near the start of the second half- fourteenth on the
list, after a singer and a Chinese conjuror.
In the booth inside sat a girl in a violet dress. I went to her
window, then nodded to the hall. 'Who's on stage?' I asked.
'What number are they at?' She looked up; and when she
saw my suit, she tittered.
'You've lost your way, dearie,' she said. 'You want the
Opera, round the corner.' I bit my lip, and said nothing, and
her smile faded. 'All right, Lord Alfred,' she said then. 'It's
number twelve, Belle Baxter, Cockney Chanteuse.'
I bought a sixpenny ticket - she pulled a face at that, of
course: 'Thought we should have the red carpet brung up, at
the least.' The truth was, I dared not venture too close to the
stage. I imagined Billy-Boy having come to the theatre and
told Kitty that he had met me, and how I was dressed. I
remembered how near the crowd could seem, from a stage
in a small hall, when you stepped out of the limes; and in
my coat and my bow-tie, of course, I would be
conspicuous. How terrible it would be, to have Kitty see me
as I watched her - to have her fix her eyes on mine, as she
sang to Walter!
So I went up to the gallery. The stairs were narrow: when I
turned a corner and found a couple there, spooning, I had to
step around them, very close. Like the girl in the booth,
they gazed at my suit and, as she had done, they tittered. I
could hear the thumping of the orchestra through the wall.
As I climbed to the door at the top of the staircase and the
thumps grew louder, my own heart seemed to beat against
my breast, in time to them. When I passed into the hall at
last - into the lurid half-light, and the heat and the smoke
and the reek of the calling crowd -I almost staggered.
On the stage was a girl in a flame-coloured frock, twitching
her skirts so her stockings showed. She finished one song
while I stood there, clutching at a pillar to steady myself;
and then she started on another. The crowd seemed to know
it. There were claps, and whistles; and before these had
quite died down, I made my way along the aisle to an
empty seat. It turned out to be at the end of a line of boys a bad choice, for, of course, when they saw me there in my
opera suit and my flower, they nudged each other, and
sniggered. One coughed into his hand - only the cough
came out as Toff! I turned my face from them, and looked
hard at the stage. Then, after a moment, I took out a
cigarette and lit it. As I struck the match, my hand
The Cockney Chanteuse finished her set at last. There were
cheers, then a brief delay, marked by shouts and shuffling
and rustling, before the orchestra struck up with its
introduction for the next act - a tinkling, Chinese melody,
which made a boy in the line along from me stand up, and
call out, 'Ninky-poo!' Then the curtain rose on a magician
and a girl, and a black japanned cabinet - a cabinet not
unlike the one that sat in Diana's bedroom. When the
magician snapped his fingers, there was a flash, and a
crack, and a puff of purple smoke; and at that the boys put
their fingers to their lips, and whistled.
I had seen - or felt as if I had seen - a thousand such acts;
and I watched this one now, with my cigarette gripped hard
between my lips, growing steadily more sick and more
uncertain. I remembered sitting in my box at the Canterbury
Palace, with my fluttering heart and my gloves with the
bows: it seemed a time immeasurably distant and quaint.
But, as I had used to do then, I clutched the sticky velvet of
my seat, and gazed at where, with a hint of drooping rope
and dusty floorboard, the stage gave way to the wings, and I
thought of Kitty. She was there, somewhere, just beyond
the edge of the curtain, perhaps straightening her costume whatever that was; perhaps chatting with Walter or Flora;
perhaps staring, as Billy-Boy told her of me - perhaps
smiling, perhaps weeping, perhaps saying only, mildly,
'Fancy that!' - and then forgetting me ...
I thought all this, and the magician performed his final
trick. There was another flash, and more smoke: the smoke
drifted as far as the gallery, and left the entire crowd
coughing, but cheering through their coughs. The curtain
fell, there was another delay while the number was
changed, and then a quiver of blue, white and amber, as the
limes-man changed the filter across his beam. I had finished
my cigarette, and now reached for another. This time, the
boys in my row all saw me do it, so I held the case to them,
and they each took a fag: 'Very generous.' I thought of
Diana. Suppose the opera had ended, and she was waiting
for me, cursing, beating her programme against her thigh?
Suppose she went back to Felicity Place, without me?
But then there came music, and the creak of the curtain. I
looked at the stage - and Walter was on it.
He seemed very large - much larger than I remembered.
Perhaps he had grown fatter; perhaps his costume was a
little padded. His whiskers he had teased with a comb, to
make them stand out rather comically. He wore tartan pegtop trousers and a green velvet jacket; and on his head was
a smok-ing-cap, in his pocket a pipe. Behind him, there was
a cloth with a scene on it representing a parlour. Beside him
was an armchair that he leaned on as he sang. He was quite
alone. I had never seen him in costume and paint before. He
was so unlike the figure I still saw, sometimes, in my
dreams - the figure with the flapping shirt, the dampened
beard, the hand on Kitty - that I looked at him, and
frowned: my heart had barely twitched, to see him standing
His voice was a mild baritone, and not at all unpleasant;
there had been a burst of applause at his first appearance,
and there was another round of satisfied clapping now, and
one or two cheers. His song, however, was a strange one:
he sang of a son that he had lost, named 'Little Jacky'. There
were a number of verses, each of them ending on the same
refrain - it might have been, 'Where, oh where, is Little
Jacky now?' I thought it queer he should be there, singing
such a song, alone. Where was Kitty? I drew hard on my
cigarette. I couldn't imagine how she would fit into this
routine, in a silk hat, a bow-tie and a flower . . .
Suddenly a horrible idea began to form itself in my mind.
Walter had taken a handkerchief from his pocket, and was
dabbing at his eye with it. His voice rose on the predictable
chorus, and was joined by not a few from the hall: 'But
where, oh where, is Little Jacky now?' I shifted in my seat. I
thought, Let it not be that! Oh please, oh please, let the act
not be that!
But it was. As Walter called his plaintive question, there
was a piping from the wing: 'Here's your Little Jacky,
Father! Here!' A figure ran on to the stage, and seized his
hand and kissed it. It was Kitty. She was dressed in a boy's
sailor-suit -a baggy white blouse with a blue sash, white
knickerbockers, stockings, and flat brown shoes; and she
had a straw hat slung over her back, on a ribbon. Her hair
was rather longer, and had been combed into a curl. Now
the band struck up another tune, and she joined her voice
with Walter's in a duet.
The crowd clapped her, and smiled. She skipped, and
Walter bent and wagged a finger at her, and they laughed.
They liked this turn. They liked seeing Kitty — my lovely,
saucy, swaggering Kitty - play the child, with her husband,
in stockings to the knee. They could not see me, as I
blushed and squirmed; they would not have known why I
did it, if they had. I hardly knew it, myself; I only felt
myself smart with a terrible shame. I could not have felt
worse if they had booed her, or pelted her with eggs. But
they liked her!
I looked at her a little harder. Then I remembered my opera
glasses, and pulled them from my pocket and lifted them to
my eyes, and saw her close before me, as close as in a
dream. Her hair, though longer, was still nut-brown. Her
lashes were still long, she was still as slender as a willow.
She had painted out her own lovely freckles and replaced
them with a few comical smudges; but I — who had traced
the pattern of them, so often, with my fingers - I thought I
could catch the shape of them beneath the powder. Her lips
were still full lips, and they gleamed as she sang. She lifted
her mouth and placed a kiss, between the verses, on
Walter's whiskers . . .
At that, I let the glasses drop. I saw the boys in the row
looking enviously at them, so passed them along the line - I
think they got thrown, in the end, to a girl at the balcony.
When I looked at the stage again, Kitty and Walter seemed
very small. He had lowered himself into the chair, and had
drawn Kitty down to sit upon his knee; she had her hands
clasped at her breast, and her feet, in their flat boy's shoes,
were swinging. But I could bear to see no more of it. I
started up. The boys called something - their words were
lost. I stumbled up the darkened aisle, and found the exit.
Back at the Royal Opera I found the singers still shrieking
upon the stage, the horns still blaring. But I only heard this
through the doors: I couldn't face picking my way across
the stalls to Diana's side, and facing her displeasure. I gave
my ticket to the Italian at the cloaks, then sat in the lobby
on a velvet chair, watching as the street filled up with
waiting hansoms, with women selling flowers, and with gay
girls, and renters.
At last there came the cries of 'Bravo', and the shouts for
the soprano. The doors were thrown wide, the lobby filled
with chattering people, and in time Diana, Maria, Dickie
and the dog emerged, and saw me waiting, and came up to
yawn and scold and ask me what the trouble was. I said I
had been sick in the gentlemen's lavatory. Diana put a hand
to my cheek.
The excitements of the day have proved too much for you,'
she said.
But she said it rather coldly; and all through the long ride
back to Felicity Place we sat in silence. When Mrs Hooper
had let us in and bolted the great front door behind us, I
walked with Diana to her bedroom, but then stepped past
her, towards my own. As I did so, she put a hand on my
arm: 'Where are you going?'
I pulled my arm free. 'Diana,' I said, 'I feel wretched. Let
me alone.'
She seized me again. 'You feel wretched,' she said, with
scorn in her voice. 'Do you think it matters to me, how you
feel about anything? Get in my bedroom at once, you little
bitch, and take your clothes off.'
I hesitated. Then: 'No, Diana,' I said.
She came closer. 'What?'
There is a way rich people have of saying What?: the word
is honed, and has a point put on it; it comes out of their
mouths like a dagger coming out of a sheath. That is how
Diana said it now, in that dim corridor. I felt it pierce me
through, and make me sag. I swallowed.
'I said, "No, Diana.'" It was no more than a whisper. But
when she heard it, she seized me by the shirt, so that I
stumbled. I said, 'Get off me, you are hurting me! Get off
me, get off me! Diana, you will spoil my shirt!'
'What, this shirt?' she answered. And with that, she put her
fingers behind the buttons, and pulled it until it ripped, and
my breasts showed bare beneath it. Then she caught hold of
the jacket, and tore that from me too - all the time panting
as she did so, and with her limbs pressed close against my
own. I staggered, and reached for the wall, then placed my
arm over my face -I thought she would strike me. But when
I looked at her at last I saw that her features were livid, not
in fury, but in lust. She reached for my hand, and placed my
fingers at the collar of her gown; and, miserable as I was,
when I understood what it was that she wanted me to do, I
felt my own breath quicken, and my cunt gave a kick. I
pulled at the lace, heard a few stitches rip, and the sound
worked on me like the tip of a whip, snapping against the
haunches of a horse. I tore it from her, her gown of black
and white and silver, that came from Worth's to match my
costume; and when it was wrecked and trampled on the rug,
she had me kneel upon it and fuck her, until she came and
came again.
Then she sent me to my own room, anyway.
I lay in the darkness and shook, and put my hands before
my mouth to keep from weeping. Upon the cabinet beside
the bed, gleaming where the starlight struck it, lay my
birthday gift, the wrist-watch. I reached for it, and felt it
cold between my fingers; but when I placed it to my ear, I
shuddered - for all that it would say was: Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.
I cast it from me, then, and put my pillow over my ears to
blot the sound out. I would not weep. I would not weep! I
would not even think. I would only surrender myself, for
ever, to the heartless, seasonless routines of Felicity Place.
So I thought then; but my days there were numbered. And
the arms of my handsome watch were slowly sweeping
them away.
Chapter 14
The morning after my birthday I slept late; and when I
woke, and rang for Blake to bring me coffee, it was to find
that Diana had gone out while I was slumbering.
'Gone out?' I said. 'Gone where? Who with?' Blake gave a
curtsey, and said she didn't know. I sat back against my
pillow, and took the cup from her. 'What was she wearing?'
I asked then.
'She was wearing her green suit, miss, and had her bag with
'Her bag. Then, she might have been going to the
Cavendish Club. Didn't she say, that she was going to her
club? Didn't she say when she'd be back?'
'Please miss, she didn't say a thing. She never does say a
thing like that, to me. You might ask Mrs Hooper ..."
I might; but Mrs Hooper had a way about her, of gazing at
me as I lay in bed, that I didn't quite care for. I said, 'No, it
doesn't matter.' Then, as Blake bent to sweep my hearth and
set a fire there, I sighed. I thought of Diana's rough kisses
of the night before - of how they had stirred me, and
sickened me, while my heart was still smarting after Kitty. I
groaned; and when Blake looked up I said, in a half-hearted
sort of way: 'Don't you get tired, Blake, of serving Mrs
The question made her cheeks flush pink. She looked back
to the hearth, then said, 'I should get tired, miss, with any
I answered that I supposed she would. Then, because it was
novel to talk to her - and because Diana had gone out
without waking me, and I was peevish and bored - I said:
'So you don't think Mrs Lethaby a hard one, then?'
She coloured again. 'They are all hard, miss. Else, how
would they be mistresses?'
'Well - but do you like it here? Do you like being a maid
'I have a room to myself, which is more than most maids
get. Besides,' she stood, and wiped her hands on her apron,
'Mrs Lethaby don't half pay a decent wage.'
I thought of how she came every morning with the coffee,
and every night with jugs of water for the bowls. I said,
'Don't think me rude, but - whenever do you spent it?'
'I am saving it, miss!' she said. 'I aim to emigrate. My friend
says, in the colonies a girl with twenty pounds can set up as
a landlady of a rooming-house, with girls of her own.'
'Is that so?' She nodded. 'And you'd like to run a roominghouse?'
'Oh yes! They will always need rooming-houses in the
colonies, you see, for the people coming in.'
'Well, that's true. And, how much have you saved?'
She flushed again. 'Seven pounds, miss.'
I nodded. Then I thought and said: 'But the colonies, Blake!
Could you bear the journey? You should have to live in a
boat — suppose there were storms?'
She picked up the scuttle of coal. 'Oh, I shouldn't mind that,
I laughed; and so did she. We had never chatted so freely
before. I had grown used to calling her only 'Blake' as
Diana did; I had grown used to her curtseys; I had grown
used to having her see me as I was now: swollen-eyed and
swollen-mouthed, naked in a bed with the sheet at my
bosom, and the marks of Diana's kisses at my throat. I had
grown used to not looking at her, not seeing her at all. Now,
as she laughed, I found myself gazing at her at last, at her
pinking cheeks and at her lashes, which were dark, and
thinking, Oh! - for she was really rather handsome.
And, as I thought it, there came the old self-consciousness
between us. She hoisted her scuttle of coal a little higher,
then came to take my tray and ask me, 'Would there be
anything else?' I answered that she might run me a bath;
and she curtseyed.
And when I lay soaking in the bathroom I heard the slam of
the front door. It was Diana. She came to find me. She had
been to the Cavendish, but only to take a letter that must be
signed by another lady.
'I didn't like to wake you,' she said, dipping her hand into
the water.
I forgot about Blake, then, and how handsome she was.
I forgot about Blake, indeed, for a month or more. Diana
gave dinners, and I posed and wore costumes; we made
visits to the club, and to Maria's house in Hampstead. All
went on as usual. I was occasionally sulky, but, as on the
night of our trip to the opera, she found ways of turning my
sulkiness to her own lewd advantage - in the end, I hardly
knew if I were really cross or only feigning crossness for
the sake of her letches. Once or twice I hoped she would
make me cross - fucking her in a rage, I found, could at the
right moment be more thrilling than fucking her in
Anyway, we went on like this. Then one night there was
some quarrel over a suit. We were dressing for a supper at
Maria's, and I would not wear the clothes she picked for
me. 'Very well,' she said, 'you may wear what you please!'
And she took the carriage, and went off to Hampstead
without me. I threw a cup against the wall - then sent for
Blake to come and tidy it. And when she came, I
remembered how pleasant it had been to chat with her
before; and I made her sit with me, and tell me more about
her plans.
And after that, she would come and spend a minute or two
with me whenever Diana was out; and she became easier
with me, and I grew freer with her. And at last I said to her:
'Lord, Blake, you've been emptying my pot for me for more
than a year, and I don't even know what your first name is!'
She smiled, and again looked handsome.
Her name was Zena.
Her name was Zena, and her story was a sad one. I had it
from her one morning in the autumn of that year, as I lay in
Diana's bed, and she came, as usual, to bring breakfast and
to see to the fire. Diana herself had risen early, and gone
out. I woke to find Zena kneeling at the hearth, working
quietly with the coals so as not to disturb me. I shifted
beneath the sheets, feeling lazy as an eel. My quim - in the
clever way of quims - was still quite slippery, from the
passion of the night before.
I lay watching her. She raised a hand to scratch her brow,
and when she took the hand away she left a smudge of soot
there. Her face, against the smudge, seemed very pale and
rather pinched. I said, 'Zena', and she gave a jump: 'Yes,
I hesitated; then, 'Zena,' I said again, 'don't mind me asking
you something, but I can't help but think of it. Diana once
told me - well, that she got you out of a prison. Is it true?'
She turned back to the hearth, and continued to pile coals
upon the fire; but I saw her ears turn crimson. She said.
'They call it a reformat'ry. It wasn't a gaol.'
'A reformat'ry, then. But it's true you were in one.' She
didn't answer. 'I don't mind it,' I added quickly.
She gave a jerk to her head, and said: 'No, I don't mind it,
now. . .'
Had she said such a thing, in such a tone, to Diana, I think
Diana would have slapped her. Indeed, she looked at me
now a little fearfully; but when she did so, I grimaced. Tm
sorry,' I said. 'Do you think me very rude? It's only - well, it
is what Diana said, about why they had you in there at all.
Is it true, what she said? Or is it only one of her stories? Is
it true that they had you in there, because you . . . kissed
another girl?'
She let her hands fall to her lap, then sat back upon her
heels and gazed into the unlit grate. Then she turned her
face to me and gave a sigh.
'I was a year in the reformat'ry,' she said, 'when I was
seventeen. It was a cruel enough place, I suppose, though
not so hard as other gaols I heard of; its mistress is a lady
Mrs Lethaby knows from her club, and that is how she got
me. I was sent to reformat'ry on the word of a girl I was
friends with at a house in Kentish Town. We were maids
there, together.'
'You were a maid before you came here?'
'I was sent out as a skivvy when I was ten: Pa was rather
poor. That was at a house in Paddington. When I was
fourteen I went to the place in Kentish Town. It was
altogether a better place. I was a housemaid, then; and I got
very thick with another girl there, named Agnes. Agnes had
a chap, and she threw the chap over, miss, for my sake.
That's how thick we were ..."
She gazed very sadly at her hands in her lap, and the room
grew still, and I grew sorry. I said, 'And was it Agnes told
the story that got you sent to the reformat'ry?'
She shook her head. 'Oh, no! What happened was, Agnes
lost her place, because the lady didn't care for her. She went
to a house in Dulwich - which, as you will know, is very far
from Kentish Town, but not so far that we couldn't meet of
a Sunday, and send each other little notes and parcels
through the post. But then - well, then another girl came.
She was not so nice as Agnes, but she took to me like
anything. I think she was a bit soft, miss, in the head. She
would look through all my things - and, of course, she
found my letters and all my bits. She would make me kiss
her! And when at last I said that I wouldn't, for Agnes' sake
- well, she went to the lady and told her that I had made her
kiss me; and that I touched her, in a peculiar way. When all
the time, it was her, only her -! And when the lady wasn't
sure whether or not to believe her, she went and took her to
my little box of letters, and showed her those.'
'Oh!'I said.'What a bitch!'
She nodded. 'A bitch is what she was, all right; only, I
didn't like to say it before.'
'And it was the lady, then, who got you sent to the
'It was, on a charge of tampering and corrupting. And she
made sure Agnes lost her place, too; and they would have
sent her to prison along with me - except that she took up
with another young man again, very sharp. And now she is
married to him, and he I hear treats her shabbily.'
She shook her head, and so did I. I said, 'Well, it seems like
you were roundly done over by women, all right!'
'Wasn't I, though!'
I gave her a wink. 'Come over here, and let's have a fag.'
She stepped over to the bed, and I found us two cigarettes;
and for a little while we sat smoking together in silence,
occasionally sighing and tutting and still shaking our heads.
At last I saw her gazing at me rather thoughtfully. When I
caught her eye, she blushed and looked away. I said, 'What
is it?'
'It's nothing, miss.'
'No, there is something,' I said, smiling. 'What are you
She took another puff of her cigarette, smoking it as you
see rough men on the street smoking, with her fingers
cupped around the fag, the burning end of it nearly
scorching her palm. Then she said: 'Well, you will think me
forwarder than I ought to be.'
'Will I?'
'Yes. But I have been just about busting to know it, ever
since I first got a proper look at you.' She took a breath.
'You used to work the halls, didn't you? You used to work
the halls, alonger Kitty Butler, and calling yourself plain
Nan King. What a turn it give me, when I saw you here
first! I never maided for no one famous before.'
I studied the tip of my cigarette, and did not answer her.
Her words had given me a kind of jolt: they were not what I
had been anticipating at all. Then I said, with a show of
laughter: 'Well, you know, I am hardly famous now. They
were all rather long ago, those days.'
'Not so long,' she said. 'I remember seeing you at Camden
Town, and another time at the Peckham Palace. That was
with Agnes - how we laughed!' Her voice sank a little. 'It
was just after that, that my troubles started ..."
I remembered the Peckham Palace very well, for Kitty and I
had only played there once. It had been in the December
before we opened at the Brit, so rather near to the start of
my own troubles. I said, 'To think of you sitting there, with
Agnes beside you; and me upon the stage, with Kitty Butler
She must have caught something in my tone, for she raised
her eyes to mine and said: 'And you don't see Miss Butler at
all, these days . . . ?' And when I shook my head, she looked
knowing. 'Well,' she said then, 'it's something, ain't it, to
have been a star upon the stage!'
I sighed. 'I suppose it is. But -' I had thought of something
else. 'You oughtn't to let Mrs Lethaby hear you say it. She,
well, she don't quite care for the music hall.'
She nodded. 'I dare say.' Then the clock upon the mantel
struck the hour and, hearing it, she rose, and stubbed her
fag out, and napped her hand before her mouth to wave
away the flavour of the smoke. 'Lord, look at me!' she cried.
'I shall have Mrs Hooper after me.' She reached for my
empty coffee-cup, then picked up her tray and went to her
scuttle of coal.
Then she turned, and grew pink again. She said: 'Will there
be anything else, miss?'
We gazed at one another for the space of a couple of
heartbeats. She still had the smudge of coal-dust at her
brow. I shifted beneath the sheets, and felt again that
slippery spot between my things - only now, it was
slipperier than ever. I had been fucking Diana every night,
almost, for a year and a half. Fucking had come to seem to
me like shaking hands -you might do it, as a kind of
courtesy, with anyone. But would Zena have come and let
me kiss her, if I had called her to the bed?
I cannot say. I did not call her. I only said: Thank you,
Zena; there's nothing else, just now.' And she picked up the
scuttle, and went.
I had some squeamishness upon me about such matters, yet.
And Diana, I knew, would have been furious.
This, as I have said, was sometime in the autumn of that
year. I remember that time, and the two or three months that
followed it, very well, for they were busy ones: it was as if
my stay with Diana were acquiring a kind of hectic
intensity, as some sick people are said to be, as it hurtled
towards its end. Maria, for example, gave a party at her
house. Dickie threw a party on a boat - hired it to sail with
us from Charing Cross to Richmond, and we danced, till
four in the morning, to an all-girl band. Christmas we spent
at Kettner's, eating goose in a private room; New Year was
celebrated at the Cavendish Club: our table grew so loud
and ribald, Miss Bruce again approached us, to complain
about our manners.
And then, in January, came Diana's fortieth birthday; and
she was persuaded to celebrate it, at Felicity Place itself,
with a fancy-dress ball.
We called it a ball, but it was not really so grand as that.
For music there was only a woman with a piano; and what
dancing there was - in the dining-room with the carpet
rolled back - was rather tame. No one, however, came for
the sake of a waltz. They came for Diana's reputation, and
for mine. They came for the wine and the food and the rosetipped cigarettes. They came for the scandal.
They came, and marvelled.
The house, for a start, we made wonderful. We hung velvet
from the walls and, from the ceiling, spangles; and we shut
off all the lamps, and lit the rooms entirely with candles.
The drawing-room we cleared of furniture, leaving only the
rug, on which we placed cushions. The marble floor of the
hall we scattered with roses - we placed roses, too, to
smoke upon the fires: by the end of the night you felt ill
with it. There was champagne to drink, and brandies, and
wine with spice in: Diana had this heated in a copper bowl
above a spirit-lamp. All the food she had sent over from the
Solferino. They did her a cold roast after the manner of the
Romans, goose stuffed with turkey stuffed with chicken
stuffed with quail - the quail, I think, having a truffle in it.
There were also oysters, which sat upon the table in a barrel
marked Whitstable; however, one lady, unused to the trick
of the shells, tried to open one with a cigar-knife. The blade
slipped, and cut her finger almost to the bone; and after she
had bled into the ice, no one much cared for them. Diana
had them taken away.
Half of the Cavendish Club attended that party - and,
besides them, more women, women from France and from
Germany, and one, even, from Capri. It was as if Diana had
sent a general invitation to all the wealthy circles of the
world - but marked the card, of course, Sapphists Only.
That was her prime requirement; her second demand, as I
have said, was that they come in fancy dress.
The result was rather mixed. Many ladies viewed the
evening only as an opportunity at last to leave their ridingcoats at home, and put on trousers. Dickie was one of these:
she came clad in a morning suit, with a sprig of lilac at her
lapel, and calling herself 'Dorian Gray'. Other costumes,
however, were more splendid. Maria Jex stained her face
and put whiskers on it, and came robed as a Turkish pasha.
Diana's friend Evelyn arrived as Marie Antoinette - though,
another Marie Antoinette came later and, after her, yet
another. That, indeed, was one of the predicaments of the
evening: I counted fully five separate Sapphos, all bearing
lyres; and there were six Ladies from Llangollen -I had not
even heard of the Ladies from Llangollen before I met
Diana. On the other hand, the women who had been more
daring in their choices risked going unrecognised by
anyone at all. 'I am Queen Anne!' I heard one lady say, very
cross, when Maria failed to identify her — yet, when Maria
addressed another lady in a crown by the same title, she
was even crosser. She turned out to be Queen Christina, of
Diana herself, that night, I never saw look more handsome.
She came as her Greek namesake, in a robe, and with
sandals showing her long second toe, and her hair piled
high and with a crescent in it; and over her shoulder she
wore a quiver full of arrows and a bow. She claimed the
arrows were for shooting gentlemen, although later I heard
her say they were for piercing young girls' hearts.
My own costume I kept secret, and would not show to
anyone: it was my plan to reveal myself, when the guests
were all arrived, and present a tribute to my mistress. It was
not a very saucy costume; but I thought it a terribly clever
one, because it had a connection with the gift I had bought
Diana, for her birthday. For that event the year before I had
begged the money from her to buy her a present, and had
got her a brooch: I think she liked it well enough. This year,
however, I felt I had surpassed myself. I had bought her, all
by post and in secret, a marble bust of the Roman page
Antinous. I had taken his story out of a paper at the
Cavendish, and had smiled to read it, because - apart of
course from the detail of Antinous being so miserable, and
finally throwing himself in the River Nile - it seemed to
resemble my own. I had given the bust to Diana at
breakfast, and she had adored it at once, and had it set up on
a pedestal in the drawing-room. 'Who would have thought
the boy had so much cleverness in him!' she had said a little
later. 'Maria, you must have chosen it for him - didn't you?'
Now, while the ladies all assembled at the party below, I
stood in my bedroom, trembling before the glass, garbing
myself as Antinous himself. I had a skimpy little toga that
reached to my knee, with a Roman belt around it - what
they called a zone. I had put powder on my cheeks to make
them languorous, and spit-black on my eyes to make them
dark. My hair I had covered entirely in a sable wig that
curled to my shoulders. About my neck there was a garland
of lotus flowers - and I can tell you, the lotus flowers had
been harder to organise, in London, in January, than
I had another garland to hand to Diana: this I also placed
about my neck. Then I went to the door and listened and,
since the moment seemed right, I ran to Diana's closet and
took out a cloak of hers and wrapped it tight about me, and
raised the hood. And then I went downstairs.
There, in the hall, I found Maria.
'Nancy, dear boy!' she cried. Her lips looked very red and
damp where they showed through the slit of her pasha's
whiskers. 'Diana has sent me out to find you. The drawingroem is positively pullulating with women, all of them
panting for a peek at your pose plastique?’
I smiled - a pullulating audience was precisely what I
wanted - then let her lead me into the room, still with the
cloak about me, and hand me into the alcove behind the
velvet curtain. Then, when I had bared my costume and
struck my pose, I murmured to her and she pulled the
tasselled cord, and the velvet twitched back and uncovered
me. As I walked amongst them the guests all fell silent and
looked knowing, and Diana-standing just where I could
have wished her, beside the bust of Antinous on its little
pedestal - raised a brow. Now, at the sight of me in my toga
and belt, the ladies sighed and murmured.
I gave them a moment, then stepped over to Diana, lifted
the extra garland from around my neck, and wound it about
hers. Then I knelt to her, took up her hand, and kissed it.
She smiled; the ladies murmured again - and then began, in
a delighted sort of way, to clap. Maria stepped up to me,
and put a hand to the hem of my toga.
'What a little jewel you look tonight, Nancy - doesn't she,
Diana? How my husband would admire you! You look like
a picture from a buggers' compendium!'
Diana laughed and said that I did. Then she reached and put
her fingers to my chin and kissed me - so hard, I felt her
teeth upon the soft flesh of my lips.
And then the music started up in the room across the hall.
Maria brought me a glass of the warm spiced wine and, to
go with it, a cigarette from Diana's special case. One of the
Marie Antoinettes weaved her way through the crowd to
take my hand and kiss it. 'Enchantee.' she said - this one
really was French. 'What a spectacle you have provided for
us! One would never see such a thing in the salons of Paris
The entire evening sounds charming; it might, indeed, have
been the very high point of my triumph as Diana's boy. And
yet, for all my planning, for all the success of my costume
and my tableau, I got no pleasure from it. Diana herself - it
was her birthday, after all - seemed distant from me, and
preoccupied with other things. Only a minute or two after I
had placed the garland of lotus flowers about her neck, she
took it off, saying it did not match her costume; she hung it
from a corner of the pedestal, where it soon fell off - later I
saw a lady with one of the flowers from it, at her own lapel.
I cannot say why -heaven knows, I had suffered graver
abuses at Diana's hand, and only smiled to suffer them! —
but her carelessness over the garland made me peevish.
Then again, the room was terribly hot and terribly
perfumed; and my wig made me hotter than anyone, and
itched - yet, I could not remove it, for fear of spoiling my
costume. After Marie Antoinette, more ladies sought me
out to tell me how much they admired me; but each proved
drunker and more ribald than the last, and I began to find
then wearisome. I drank glass after glass of spiced wine and
champagne, in an effort to make myself as careless as they;
but the wine - or, more likely, the hashish I had smoked seemed to make me cynical rather than gay. When one lady
reached to stroke my thigh as she stepped past me, I pushed
her roughly away. 'What a little brute!' she cried, delighted.
In the end I stood half-hidden in the shadows, looking on,
rubbing my temples. Mrs Hooper was at the table with the
hot wine on it, ladling it out; I saw her glance my way, and
give a kind of smile. Zena had been sent to move amongst
the ladies, bearing dainties on a tray; but when she seemed
to want to catch my eye, I looked away. Even from her I
felt distant, that night.
So I was almost glad when, at about eleven o'clock, the
mood of the party was changed, by Dickie calling for more
light to be brought, for the lady on the piano to cease her
playing, and for all the women present to gather round and
pay attention.
'What's this?' cried one lady. 'Why has it grown bright?'
Evelyn said: 'We are to hear Dickie Reynolds' history, from
a book written by a doctor.'
'A doctor? Is she ill?'
'It is her vie sexuelle!'
'Her vie sexuelle?’
'My dear, I know it already, it is terribly dreary ...' This was
from a woman who stood beside me in the shadows, garbed
as a monk; as I turned to her she gave a yawn, then slipped
quietly from the room in search of other sport. The rest of
the guests, however, looked just as eager as Dickie could
wish. She stood beside Diana; the book that Evelyn had
referred to was in Diana's hands - it was small and black
and densely printed, with not a single illustration: it was not
at all the kind of thing that people usually gave Diana, for
her box. And yet, she was turning its pages in fascination.
A lady dipped her head to read the title from the spine, then
cried: 'But the book's in Latin! Dickie, whatever is the point
of a filthy story, if the damn thing's written in Latin?'
Dickie now looked a little prim. 'It is only the title that is
Latin,' she answered; 'and, besides, it is not a filthy book, it
is a very brave one. It has been written by a man, in an
attempt to explain our sort so that the ordinary world will
understand us.'
A lady dressed as Sappho took the cigar from her mouth,
and studied Dickie in a kind of disbelief. She said: This
book is to be passed among the public; and your story is in
it? The story of your life, as a lover of women? But Dick,
have you gone mad! This man sounds like a pornographer
of the most mischievous variety!'
'She has taken a nom-de-guerre, of course,' said Evelyn.
'Even so. Dickie, the folly of it!'
'You misunderstand,' said Dickie. 'This is a new thing
entirely. This book will assist us. It will advertise us.'
A kind of collective shudder ran right around the drawingroom. The Sappho with the cigar shook her head. 'I have
never heard of such a thing,' she said.
'Well,' answered Dickie impressively, 'you will hear more
of it, believe me.'
'Let us hear more of it now!' cried Maria; and someone else
called: 'Yes, Diana, read it to us, do!'
And so more candles were brought, and placed at Diana's
shoulder. The ladies settled themselves into comfortable
poses, and the reading began.
I cannot remember the words of it now. I know that, as
Dickie had promised, they were not at all filthy; indeed,
they were rather dry. And yet, her story was lent a kind of
lewdness, too, by the very dullness of the prose in which it
was told. All the time Diana read, the ladies called out
ribald comments. When Dickie's history was complete, they
read another, which was rather lewder. Then they read a
very saucy one from the gentlemen's section. At last the air
was thicker and warmer than ever; even I, in my sulkiness,
began to feel myself stirred by the doctor's prim
descriptions. The book was passed from lady to lady, while
Diana lit herself another cigarette. Then one lady said, 'You
must ask Bo about that: she was seven years amongst the
Hindoos'; and Diana called, 'What? What must she ask?'
'We are reading the story,' cried the woman in reply, 'of a
lady with a clitoris as big as a little boy's prick! She claims
she caught the malady from an Indian maid. I said, if only
Bo Holliday were here, she might confirm it for us, for she
was thick with the Hindoos in her years in Hindoostan.'
'It is not true of Indian girls,' said another lady then. 'But it
is of the Turks. They are bred like it, that they might
pleasure themselves in the seraglio.'
'Is that so?' said Maria, stroking her beard.
'Yes, it is certainly so.'
'But it is true also of our own poor girls!' said someone else.
'They are brought up twenty to a bed. The continual fretting
makes their clitorises grow. I know that for a fact.'
'What rubbish!' said the Sappho with the cigar.
'I can assure you it is not rubbish,' answered the first lady
hotly. 'And if we only had a girl from the slums amongst us
now, I would pull her drawers down and show you the
There was laughter at her words, and then the room grew
rather quiet. I looked at Diana; and as I did so, she slowly
turned her head to gaze at me. 'I wonder . . .' she said
thoughtfully, and one or two other ladies began to study
me, as she did. My stomach gave a subtle kind of lurch. I
thought, She wouldn't! And as I thought it, a quite different
lady said: 'But Diana, you have just the creature we need!
Your maid was a slum-girl, wasn't she? Didn't you have her
from a prison or a home? You know what the women get
up to in prison, don't you? I should think they must frot
until their parts are the size of mushrooms!'
Diana turned her eyes from me, and drew on her pinktipped fag; and then she smiled. 'Mrs Hooper!' she called.
'Where is Blake?'
'She is in the kitchen, ma'am,' answered the housekeeper
from her station at the bowl of wine. 'She is loading her
'Go and fetch her.'
'Yes ma'am.'
Mrs Hooper went. The ladies looked at one another, and
then at Diana. She stood very calm and steady beside the
bust of cold Antinous; but when she raised her glass to her
lip, I saw that her hand was trembling slightly. I shifted
from one foot to the other, my briefly flaring lust all faded.
In a moment, Mrs Hooper had returned, with Zena. When
Diana called to her, Zena walked blinkingly into the centre
of the room. The ladies parted to let her pass, then stepped
together again at the back of her.
Diana said, 'We have been wondering about you, Blake.'
Zena blinked again. 'Ma'am?'
'We have been wondering about your time at the
reformatory.' Now Zena coloured. 'We have been
wondering how you filled your hours. We thought there
must be some little occupation, to which you turned your
idle fingers, in your solitary cell.'
Zena hesitated. Then she said, 'Please, m'm, do you mean,
sewing bags?'
At that, the ladies gave a roar of laughter, which made Zena
flinch, and blush worse than ever, and put a hand to her
throat. Diana said, very slowly, 'No, child, I did not mean
sewing bags. I meant, that we thought you must have turned
frigstress, in your little cell. That you must have frigged
yourself until your cunt was sore. That you must have
frigged yourself so long and so hard, you frigged yourself a
cock. We think you must have a cock, Blake, in your
drawers. We want you to lift your skirt, and let us see it!'
Now the ladies laughed again. Zena looked at them, and
then at Diana. 'Please, m'm,' she said, beginning to shake, 'I
don't know what you mean!'
Diana stepped towards her. 'I think you do,' she said. She
had picked up the book that Dickie had given her, and now
she opened it, and held it oppressively close to Zena's face,
so that Zena flinched again. 'We have been reading a book
full of stories of girls like you,' she said. 'And now, what
are you suggesting? That the doctor who wrote this book this book that Miss Reynolds gave me, for my birthday - is
a fool?'
'No, m'm!'
'Well then. The doctor says you have a cock. Come along,
lift your skirts! Good gracious, girl, we only want to look at
She had put her hand upon Zena's skirt, and I could see the
other ladies, all gripped, in their turn, by her wildness,
making ready to assist her. The sight made me sick. I
stepped out of the shadows and said, 'Leave her, Diana! For
God's sake, leave her alone!'
The room fell silent at once. Zena gazed at me in fright, and
Diana turned, and blinked. She said: 'You wish to raise the
skirt yourself?'
'I want you to leave Blake be! Go on, Blake,' I nodded to
Zena. 'Go on back to the kitchen.'
'You stay where you are!' cried Diana to her. 'And as for
you,' she said, fixing me with one narrow, black, glittering
eye, 'do you think you are mistress here, to give orders to
my servants? Why, you are a servant! What is it to you, if I
ask my girl to bare her backside for me? You have bared
yours for me, often enough! Get back behind your velvet
curtain! Perhaps, when we have finished with little Blake,
we shall all take turns upon Antinous.'
Her words seemed to press upon my aching head - and
then, as if my head were made of glass, it seemed to shatter.
I put my hand to the garland of wilting flowers at my throat,
and tore it from me. Then I did the same with the sable wig,
and flung it to the floor. My hair was oiled flat to my head,
my cheeks were flushed with wine and anger -I must have
looked terrible. But I didn't feel terrible: I felt filled with
power and with light. I said, 'You shall not talk to me in
such a way. How dare you talk to me like that!'
Beside Diana, Dickie rolled her eyes. 'Really Diana,' she
said, 'what a bore this is!'
'What a bore!' I turned to her. 'Look at you, you old cow,
dressed up in a satin shirt like a boy of seventeen. Dorian
Gray? You look more like the bleedin' portrait, after Dorian
has made a few trips down the docks!'
Dickie twitched, then grew pale. Several of the ladies
laughed, and one of them was Maria. 'My dear boy - !' she
'Don't "dear boy" me, you ugly bitch!' I said to her then.
'You're as bad as her, in your Turkish trousers. What are
you, looking for your harem? No wonder they are off
fucking each other with their enormous parts, if they have
you as their master. You have had your fingers all over me,
for a year and a half; but if a real girl was ever to uncover
her tit and put it in your hand, you would have to ring for
your maid, for her to show you what to do with it!'
'That's enough!' This was Diana. She was gazing at me,
white-faced and furious, but still terribly calm. Now she
turned and addressed the group of goggling ladies. She
said: 'Nancy thinks it amusing, sometimes, to kick her little
heels; and sometimes, of course, it is. But not tonight.
Tonight, I'm afraid, it is only tiresome.' She looked at me
again, but spoke, still, as if to her guests. 'She will go
upstairs,' she said levelly, 'until she is sorry. Then she will
apologise to the ladies she has upset. And then, I shall think
of some little punishment for her.' Her gaze flicked over the
remains of my costume. 'Something suitably Roman,
'Roman?' I answered. 'Well, you should know about that.
How old are you today? You were there, weren't you, at
Hadrian's palace?'
It was a mild enough insult, after all that I had said. But as I
said it, there came a titter from the crowd. It was only a
small one; but if there was ever anyone who could not bear
to be tittered at, that person was Diana. I think she would
rather have been shot between the eyes. Now, hearing that
stifled laugh, she grew even paler. She took a step towards
me, and raised her hand; she did it so quickly, I had time
only to catch the flash of something dark at the end of her
arm - then there came what seemed to be a small explosion
at my cheek.
She had still held Dickie's book, all this time; and now she
had struck me with it.
I gave a cry, and staggered. When I put a hand to my face, I
found blood upon it - from my nose, but also from a gash
beneath my eye, where the edge of the leather-bound spine
had caught it. I reached for a shoulder or an arm, against
which to steady myself; but now all the ladies shrank away
from me, and I almost stumbled. I looked once at Diana.
She also had reeled, after dealing me the blow; but Evelyn
was beside her with her arm about her waist. She said
nothing to me; and I, at last, was quite incapable of speech.
I think I coughed, or snorted. There came a splatter of blood
upon the Turkey rug, that made the ladies draw even further
from me, and give little moues of surprise and disgust.
Then I turned, and staggered from the room.
At the door stood Maria's whippet, Satin, and when he saw
me he barked. Maria had set him there, with a dog's head of
papier mach6 fixed to each side of his collar, to represent
the hound that stood on guard at the gate of Hades.
The marble floor of the hall, as I have said, we had
scattered with roses: it was terribly hard to cross it, in bare
feet, with my ringing head and my hand at my cheek.
Before I had reached the staircase, I heard a step behind me,
and a bang. I turned to see Zena there: Diana had sent her
from the room in my wake, then had the door shut on us.
She gazed at me, then came to put a hand upon my arm:
'Oh, miss . . .'
And I - who had saved her from Diana's wildness only, as it
seemed to me then, to have that wildness turned upon
myself - I shook her from me. 'Don't you touch me!' I cried.
Then I ran from her, to my own room, and closed the door.
And sat there wretched, in the darkness, nursing my oozing
cheek. Below me, after a few more minutes of silence, there
came the sound of the piano; and then came laughter, and
then shouts. They were carrying on their revelling, without
me! I could not credit it. The sport with Zena, the insults,
the blow and the bleeding nose - these seemed only to have
made the marvellous party more gay and marvellous still.
If only Diana had sent her guests home. If only I had placed
my head beneath my pillow, and forgotten them. If only I
had not grown miserable, and peevish, and vengeful, at the
sound of their fun.
If only Zena had not forgiven me my harshness in the hall had not come creeping to my door, to ask me, was I very
hurt, and was there anything that she could do, to comfort
When I heard her knock, I flinched: I was sure it must be
Diana, seeking me out to torture me or-perhaps, who
knew?-to caress me. When I saw that it was Zena, I stared.
'Miss,' she said. She had a candle in her hand, and its flame
dipped and fluttered, sending shadows dancing crazily
about the walls. 'I couldn't go up, knowing you was here all
bruised and bleeding- and all, oh! all on my account!
I sighed. 'Come in," I said, 'and close the door.' And when
she had done that, and stepped nearer to me, I put my head
in my hands and groaned. 'Oh Zena,' I said, 'what a night!
What a night!'
She set down her candle. 'I've got a cloth,' she said, 'with a
little bit of ice in it. If you'll just - permit me -' I lifted my
head, and she placed the cloth against my cheek, so that I
winced. 'What a corker of an eye you'll have!' she said.
Then, in a different tone: 'What a devil that woman is!' She
began to wipe away the blood that was crusted about my
nostril - lowering herself upon the bed, at my side, and
placing her free hand upon my shoulder to brace herself
against me, as she did so.
Gradually, however, I became aware that she was
trembling. 'It's the cold, miss,' she said. 'Only the cold and,
well, the bit of fright I had downstairs . . .' But as she said
it, I felt her shudder harder than ever, and she began to
weep. 'The truth is,' she said through her tears, 'I could not
bear the thought of lying up there in my own room, with
them wicked ladies roaming about the place. I thought, that
they might come and have another go at me . . .'
'There now,' I said. I took the cloth from her and placed it
on the floor. Then I drew the counterpane from the bed, and
set it about her shoulders. 'You shall stay here with me,
where the ladies cannot get you . . .' I put my arm around
her, and her head came against my ear. She still wore her
servant's cap; now I took the pins from it and drew it from
her, and her hair fell to her shoulders. It was scented with
burning roses, and with the spice from the wine, Smelling
it, with Zena warm against my shoulder, I began suddenly
to feel drunker than I had all night. Perhaps it was only that
my head was reeling, from the force of Diana's blow.
I swallowed. Zena put a handkerchief to her nose, and grew
a little stiller. There came, from the floors below, the sound
of running feet, a furious thundering upon the piano, and a
scream of laughter.
'Just listen to them!' I said, growing bitter again. 'Partying
like anything! They have forgotten all about us, sitting
miserable up here..."
'Oh, I hope they have!'
'Of course they have. We might be doing anything, it
wouldn't matter to them! Why, we might be having a party
of our own!' She blew her nose, then giggled. My head gave
a sort of tilt. I said: 'Zena! Why shouldn't we have a party,
just the two of us! How many bottles of champagne are
there left, in the kitchen?'
There are loads of 'em.'
'Well, then. Just you run down and fetch us one.'
She bit her lip. 'I don't know ..."
'Go on, you shan't be seen. They are all in the drawingroom, and you can go by the back stairs. And if anyone
does see you, and asks, you can say you are fetching it for
me. Which is true.'
'Go on! Take your candle!' I rose, then took hold of her
hands and pulled her to her feet; and she - infected at last by
my new recklessness - gave another giggle, put her fingers
to her lips, then tip-toed from the room. While she was
gone I lit a lamp, but kept it turned very low. She had left
her cap upon the bed: I picked it up and set it on my own
head, and when she returned five minutes later and saw me
wearing it she laughed out loud.
She carried a dewy bottle and a glass. 'Did you see any
ladies?' I asked her.
I saw a couple, but they never saw me. They were at the
scullery door and - oh! they was kissing the guts out of each
I imagined her standing in the shadows, watching them. I
went to her and took the bottle, then peeled away the lead
wrapper from its neck. 'You've shaken it up,' I said. 'It'll go
off with a real bang!' She put her hands over her ears, and
shut her eyes. I felt the cork squirm in the glass for a
second; then it leapt from my fingers, and I gave a yell:
'Quick! Quick! Bring a glass!' A creamy fountain of foam
had risen from the neck of the bottle, and now drenched my
fingers and soaked my legs -I was still, of course, clad in
the little white toga. Zena seized the glass from the tray and
held it, giggling again, beneath the spurting wine.
We went and sat upon the bed, Zena with the glass in her
hands, me sipping from the frothing bottle. When she
drank, she coughed; but I filled her glass again and said:
'Drink up! Just like those cows downstairs.' And she drank,
and drank again, until her cheeks were red. I felt my own
head grow giddier with every sip I took, and the pulse at my
swollen face grow thicker. At last I said, 'Oh! How it
hurts!', and Zena set down her glass to put her fingers, very
gently, upon my cheek. When she had held them there for a
second or two, I took her hand in my own, and leaned and
kissed her.
She didn't draw away until I made to lie upon the bed and
pull her with me. Then she said: 'Oh, we cannot! What if
Mrs Lethaby should come?'
'She won't. She is leaving me, as a kind of punishment.' I
touched her knee, and then her thigh, through the layers of
her skirts.
'We cannot. . .' she said again; but this time, her voice was
fainter. And when I tugged at her frock and said, 'Come on,
take this off - or shall I tear the buttons?' she gave a
drunken sort of laugh: 'You shall do no such thing! Help me
nicely, now.'
Naked she was very thin, and strangely coloured: flaming
crimson at the cheeks, a coarser red from her elbows to her
fingertips, and palely white - almost bluish-white - on her
torso, upper arms, and thighs. The hair between her legs you can never guess at that kind of thing in advance - was
quite ginger. When I dipped my lips to it, she gave a squeal:
'Oh! What a thing to do!' But then, after a moment, she held
my head and pressed it. She didn't seem to be at all sorry
about my swollen nose, then. She only said: 'Oh, turn
around, turn around quick, that I might do it to you!'
After that, I pulled the counterpane over us, and we drank
more champagne, taking turns to sip from the bottle. I put
my hand upon her. I said: 'Did you used to frig yourself in
the reformat'ry?' She gave me a slap, saying, 'Oh, you are as
bad as them downstairs! I nearly died!' She pushed the
blanket back, and squinted at her quim. 'To think of me
with a cock! What an idea!'
'What an idea? Oh, Zena, I should love to see you with one!
I should love -' I sat up. 'Zena, I should love to see you in
Diana's dildo!'
That thing? She's made you filthy! I should die with shame,
before I ever tried such a thing!' Her lashes fluttered.
I said, 'You are blushing! You've fancied it, haven't you?
You've fancied a bit of that kind of sport - don't tell me you
'Really, a girl like me!' But she was redder than ever, and
would not gaze at me. I caught hold of her hand, and pulled
her up.
'Come on,' I said. 'You have got me all hot for it. Diana will
never know.'
I pulled her to the door, then peered into the corridor
outside. The music and laughter from downstairs was
fainter, but still loud and rather furious. Zena fell against
me, and put her arms around my waist; then we staggered
together, quite naked, and with our hands before our faces
to stop ourselves from laughing, to Diana's little parlour.
Here, it was the work of a moment to open the bureau's
secret drawer, then take the key to the rosewood trunk, and
open that. Zena looked on, all the time casting fearful
glances towards the door. When she saw the dildo,
however, she coloured again, but seemed unable to tear her
eyes from it. I felt a drunken surge of power and pride.
'Stand up,' I said - I sounded almost like Diana. 'Stand up,
and fasten the buckles.'
When she had done that, I led her to the looking-glass. I
winced, to see my face all red and swollen, and still with
crumbs of blood caught in its creases; but the sight of Zena
-gazing at herself with the dildo jutting from her, placing a
hand upon the shaft of it, and swallowing, to feel the
motion of the leather - proved more distracting than the
bruise. At last I turned her and placed my hands upon her
shoulders, and nudged the head of the dildo between my
thighs. If my quim had had a tongue, it could not have been
more eloquent; and if Zena's quim had had one, it would
now have licked its lips.
She gave a cry. We stumbled to the bed and fell, crosswise,
upon the satin. My head hung from it - the blood rushed to
my cheek and made it ache - but now Zena had the shaft
inside me and, as she began to wriggle and thrust, I found
myself compelled to lift my mouth and kiss her.
As I did so, I heard a noise, quite distinct, above the
shuddering of the bed-posts and the pounding of the pulse
inside my ears. I let my head fall, and opened my eyes. The
door of the room was open, and it was full of ladies' faces.
And the face, pale with fury, at the centre of them all, was
For a second I lay quite frozen; I saw what she must see the open trunk, the tangle of limbs upon the bed, the
pumping, leather-strapped arse (for Zena, alas, had her eyes
tight shut, and still thrust and panted even as her outraged
mistress gazed on). Then I placed my hands on Zena's
shoulders and gripped them hard. She opened her eyes, saw
what I saw, and gave a squeal of fright. Instinctively, she
tried to rise, forgetful of the shaft which pinned her
sweating hips to mine. For a moment we floundered
together inelegantly; she let out a burst of nervous laughter,
more jarring than her first thin shriek of fear.
At last she gave a wriggle; there was - monstrously distinct
in the sudden silence, and horribly incriminating - a kind of
sucking sound; then she was free. She stood at the side of
the bed, the dildo bobbing before her. One of the ladies at
Diana's side said, 'She has a prick, after all!' And Diana
answered: 'That prick is mine. These little sluts have stolen
Her voice was thick - with drunkenness, perhaps; but also, I
think, with shock. I looked again at the wide and spilling
box, that she was so vain and jealous of, and felt a worm of
satisfaction wriggle within me.
And I remembered, too, another room, a room I thought
that I had carefully forgotten - a room where it was I who
stood speechless at the door, while my sweetheart shivered
and blushed beside her lover. And the sight of Diana, in my
old place, made me smile.
It was the smile, I think, which deranged her at last. 'Maria,'
she said - for Maria was with her, too, along with Dickie
and Evelyn: perhaps they had all come to the bedroom to
retrieve a dirty book - 'Maria, get Mrs Hooper. I want
Nancy's things brought here: she is leaving. And a dress for
Blake. They are both going back to the gutter, where I got
them from.' Her voice was cold; as she took a step towards
me, however, it grew warmer. 'You little slut!' she said.
'You little trollop! You whore, you harlot, you strumpet,
you bitch!' But they were words that she had used on me a
thousand times before, in lust or passion; and now, said in
hate, they were curiously devoid of any sting.
Beside me, however, Zena had begun to shake. As she did
so, the dildo bobbed; and when Diana caught the motion
she gave a roar: Take that thing from your hips!' At once,
Zena fumbled with the straps; her fingers jumped so that
she could barely grasp the buckles, and I stepped to help
her. All the time we worked, Diana hurled abuses at her she was a half-wit, a street-whore, a common little
frigstress. The ladies at the door looked on, and laughed.
One of them - it might have been Evelyn - nodded to the
trunk, and called: 'Use the strap on her, Diana!' Diana
curled her lip.
'They will strap her well enough, at the reformatory,' she
said; 'when she returns there.'
At that, Zena fell to her knees and began to cry. Diana gave
a sneer, and drew her foot away so that the tears should not
fall upon her sandal. Dickie - the necktie at her throat
pulled loose, the lilac at her lapel squashed flat, and
browning - said: 'Can't we see them fuck again? Diana,
make them do it, for our pleasure!'
But Diana shook her head; and the gaze that she turned on
me was as cold and as dead as the eye of a lantern, when
the flame inside has been quite put out. She said: 'They
have fucked their last in my house. They can fuck upon the
streets, like dogs.'
Another lady, very drunk, said that, in that case, at least
they should have the thrill of watching us, from a window.
But I looked only at Diana; and, for the first time in all that
terrible evening, I began to feel afraid.
Now Maria returned with Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper's eyes
were bright. She held my old sailor's bag, that I had brought
from Mrs Milne's and cast into the furthest corner of my
closet, and a rusty black dress, and a pair of thick-soled
boots. While the ladies all looked on, Diana threw the dress
and boots at Zena; then she dipped her hand fastidiously
into the sailor's bag, and pulled out a crumpled frock, and
some shoes, which she cast at me. The frock was one I had
used to wear in my old life, and thought fine enough. Now
it was cold and slightly clammy to the touch, and its seams
were rimmed with moth-dust.
Zena began at once to pull on the dreary black dress, and
the boots. I, however, kept my own frock in my hands, and
gazed at Diana, and swallowed.
'I'm not wearing this,' I said.
'You shall wear it,' she answered shortly, 'or be thrust naked
into Felicity Place.'
'Oh, thrust her naked, Diana!' said a woman at her back. It
was a Lady from Llangollen, minus her topper.
'I'm not putting it on,' I said again. Diana nodded. 'Very
well,' she said, 'then I shall make you.' And while I was still
too amazed to raise a hand in my defence, she had crossed
the room, torn the robe from my fingers, and lowered the
hem of its skirts over my head. I writhed, then, and began to
kick; she pushed me to the bed, held me fast upon it with
one hand and, with the other, continued to tug the folds of
cloth about me. I struggled more fiercely; soon there came
the rip of a broken hem.
Hearing it, Diana gave a shout: 'Help me with her, can't
you? Maria! Mrs Hooper! You girl -' she meant Zena. 'Do
you want to go back to that damn reformatory?'
Instantly, there came upon me what felt like fifty hands, all
pulling at the dress, all pinching me, all grasping at my
kicking legs. For an age, they seemed to be upon me. I grew
hot and faint beneath the layers of wool. My swollen head
was knocked, and began to pulse and ache. Someone placed
her thumb -I remember this very clearly - at the top of my
thigh, in the slippery hollow of my groin. It might have
been Maria. It might have been Mrs Hooper, the
At last I lay panting upon the bed, the dress about me. The
shoes were placed upon my feet, and laced. 'Stand up!' said
Diana; and when I had done so she caught me by the
shoulder and propelled me from her bedroom, through the
parlour, and out into the darkened hall beyond. Behind me,
the ladies followed, Mrs Hooper and Maria with Zena
gripped between them. When I hesitated, Diana prodded me
forwards, so that I almost stumbled and fell.
Now, at last, I began to weep. I said, 'Diana, you cannot
mean this -!' But her gaze was cold. She seized me, and
pinched me, and made me walk faster. Down we went - all
flushed and panting and fantastically costumed as we were down through the centre of that tall house, in a great jagged
spiral, like a tableau of the damned heading for hell. We
passed the drawing-room: there were some ladies there still,
lolling upon the cushions, and when they saw us they
called, What were we doing? And a lady in our party
answered, that Diana had caught her boy and her maid in
her own bed, and was throwing them out - they must be
sure to come and watch it.
And so, the lower we went, the greater came the press of
ladies at my back, and the louder the laughter and the ribald
cries. We reached the basement, and it grew colder; when
Diana opened the door that led from the kitchen to the
garden at the rear of the house, the wind blew hard upon my
weeping eyes, and made them sting. I said, 'You cannot,
you cannot!' The cold was sobering me. I had had a vision,
of my chamber, my closet, my dressing-table, my linen; my
cigarette case, my cuff-links, my walking-cane with the
silver tip; my suit of bone-coloured linen; my shoes, with
the leather so handsome and fine I had once put out my
tongue and licked it. My watch, with the strap that secured
it to my wrist.
Diana pushed me forward, and I turned and grabbed her
arm. 'Don't cast me from you, Diana!' I said. 'Let me stay!
I'll be good! Let me stay, and I'll pleasure you!' But as I
begged, she kept me marching, backwards; until at last we
reached the high wooden gate, beside the carriage-house, at
the far end of the garden. There was a smaller door set into
the gate, and now Diana stepped to pull it open; beyond
seemed perfect blackness. She took Zena from Mrs Hooper,
and held her by the neck. 'Show your face in Felicity Place
again,' she said, 'or remind me of your creeping, miserable
little existence by any word or deed, and I shall keep my
promise, and return you to that gaol, and make sure you
stay there, till you rot. Do you understand?' Zena nodded.
She was thrust into the square of darkness, and swallowed
by it. Then Diana turned for me.
She said: The same applies to you, you trollop.' She pushed
me to the doorway, but here I held fast to the gate, and
begged her. 'Please, Diana! Let me only collect my things!'
I looked past her, to Dickie, and Maria: the gazes they
turned upon me were livid and blurred, with the wine and
with the chase, and held not one soft spark of sympathy. I
looked at all the ogling ladies in their fluttering costumes.
'Help me, can't you?' I cried to them. 'Help me, for God's
sake! How many times have you not gazed at me and
wanted me! How many times have you not come to say
how handsome I am, how much you envy Diana the owning
of me. Any one of you might have me now! Any one of
you! Only, don't let her put me into the street, into the dark,
without a coin on me! Oh! Dam' you all for a set of bitches,
if you let her do such a thing, to me!'
So I cried out, weeping all the time I spoke, then turning to
wipe my running nose on the sleeve of my cheap frock. My
cheek felt twice its ordinary size, and my hair was matted
where I had lain upon it; and at last, the ladies turned their
eyes from me in a kind of boredom - and I knew myself
done for. My hands slid from the gate, Diana pushed me,
and I stumbled into the alleyway beyond. Behind me came
my sailor's bag, to land with a smack on the cobbles at my
I raised my eyes from it to look once more upon Diana's
house. The windows of the drawing-room were rosy with
light, and ladies were already picking their way across the
grass towards them. I caught a glimpse of Mrs Hooper; of
Dickie, fixing her monocle to her watery eye; of Maria; and
of Diana. A few strands of her dark hair had come loose
from their pins, and the wind was whipping them about her
cheeks. Her housekeeper said something to her, and she
laughed. Then she closed the door, and turned the key in it;
and the lights and the laughter of Felicity Place were lost to
me, for ever.
Chapter 15
You might think that, having sunk so low already, I should
not have scrupled to have banged upon the door that had
been closed on me, or even tried to scale the gate, to plead
with my old mistress from the top of it. Perhaps I
considered such things, in the moments that I stood,
stunned and snivelling, in that dark and lonely alley. But I
had seen the look that Diana had turned on me - a look that
was devoid of any fire, kind or lustful. Worse, I had seen
the expressions upon the faces of her friends. How could I
go to them, and ever hope to walk before them again,
handsome and proud?
The thought made me weep still harder; I might have sat
and wept before that gate, perhaps, till dawn. But after a
moment there came a movement at my side, and I looked
up to see Zena standing there, with her hands across her
breast, her face very pale. In all my agony, I had forgotten
her. Now I said, 'Oh, Zena! What an end to it all! What are
we to do?'
'What are we to do?' she answered: she sounded not at all
like her old self. 'What are we to do? I know what I should
do. I should leave you here, and hope that woman comes
back for you, and takes you in and treats you nasty. It's all
you deserve!'
'Oh, she won't come back for me - will she?'
'No, of course she won't; nor for me, either. See where all
your soft talk has landed us! Out in the dark, on the coldest
night in January, with not a hat nor even a pair of drawers;
nor even a handkerchief! I wish I was in gaol. You have
lost me my place, you have lost me my character. You have
lost me my seven pounds' wages, what I was keeping for
the colonies - oh! What a fool I was, to let you kiss me!
What a fool you was, to think the mistress wouldn't - oh! I
could hit you!'
'Hit me then!' I cried, still snivelling. 'Black my other eye
for me, I deserve it!' But she only tossed her head, and
wrapped her arms still tighter about her, and turned away.
I wiped my eyes upon my sleeve, then, and tried to grow a
little calmer. It had been only just midnight when I had
staggered from the drawing-room still dressed as Antinous;
I guessed it was about half-past now - a terrible time,
because it meant we still had the longest, coldest hours to
pass, before the dawn. I said, as humbly as I could, 'What
am I to do, Zena? What am I to do?'
She looked over her shoulder at me. 'I suppose, you shall
have to go to your folks. You have folks, don't you? You
have some friends?'
'I have nobody, now . . .'
I put a hand to my face again; she turned, and began to
chew on her lip. 'If you really have no one,' she said at last,
'then we are both quite alike, for I have no one, neither: my
family all threw me over, over the business with Agnes and
the police.' She gazed at my sailor's bag, and nudged it with
her boot. 'Don't you have a bit of cash about you anywhere?
What's in there?'
'All my clothes,' I answered. 'All the boy's clothes I came to
Diana's with.'
'Are they good ones?'
'I used to think so.' I raised my head. 'Do you mean for us to
put them on, and pass as gents . . . ?'
She had bent to the bag, and was squinting into it. 'I mean
for us to sell them.'
'Sell them?' Sell my guardsman's uniform, and my Oxford
bags? 'I don't know ..."
She raised her hands to her mouth, to blow upon her
fingers. 'You may sell 'em, miss; or you may walk down to
the Edgware Road and stand at a lamp-post till a feller
offers you a coin . . .'
We sold them. We sold them to an old clothes seller who
had a stall in a market off Kilburn Road. He was packing up
his bags when Zena found him - the market had been
trading till midnight or so, but when we reached it the
barrows were mostly empty and the street was filled with
litter, and they were shutting down the naphtha lamps and
tipping the water from their buckets into the drains. The
man saw us coming and said at once: 'You're too late, I ain't
selling.' But when Zena opened the bag and pulled the suits
from it, he tilted his head and gave a sniff. The soldier's
duds is hardly worth my keeping on the stall,' he said,
spreading the jacket out across his arm; 'but I will take it,
for the sake of the serge, which might do for a fancy
waistcoat. The coat and trousers is handsome enough,
likewise the shoes. I shall take them from you, for a guinea.'
'A guinea!' I said.
'A guinea is as fair a price as you will get, tonight.' He
sniffed again. 'I daresay they are hot enough.'
They ain't hot at all,' said Zena. 'But the guinea will do; and
if you'll chuck in a couple of ladies' niceties and a pair of
hats with bows on, call it a pound.'
The drawers and stockings he gave us were yellowed with
age; the hats were terrible; and we were both, of course,
still in need of stays. But Zena, at least, seemed satisfied
with the deal. She pocketed the money, then led me to a
baked-potato stall, and we had a potato each, and a cup of
tea between us. The potatoes tasted of mud. The tea was
really tinted water. But at the stall there was a brazier, and
this warmed us.
Zena, as I have said, seemed very changed since our
expulsion from the house. She did not tremble - it was I
who trembled now - and she had an air of wisdom and
authority about her, a way of passing through the streets, as
if she were quite at her ease upon them. I had been at ease
upon them once; now, I think that, if she had let me hold
her hand, I would have done it - as it was, I could only
stumble at her heels, saying wretchedly, 'What shall we do
next, Zena?' and 'Oh, Zena, how cold it is!' and even 'What
do you suppose they are doing now, Zena, at Felicity Place?
Oh, can you believe that she has really cast me from her!'
'Miss,' she said to me at last, 'don't take it the wrong way;
but if you don't shut up, I really shall be obliged to hit you,
after all.'
I said: 'I'm sorry, Zena.'
In the end she fell into conversation with a gay girl who had
also come to stand beside the brazier; and from her she got
the details of a lodging-house nearby, that was said to take
people in, all through the night. It turned out to be a
dreadful place, with one chamber for the women and
another for the men; and everyone who slept there had a
cough. Zena and I lay two in a bed - she keeping her dress
on, for the sake of the warmth, but me still fretting over the
creases in mine, and so placing it beneath the foot of the
mattress in the hope that it would press flat overnight.
We lay together very straight and stiff, our heads upon the
same prickling bolster, but hers turned from mine and her
eyes shut fast. The coughing of the other lodgers, the
soreness at my cheek, my general wretchedness and panic,
kept me wakeful. When Zena gave a shiver, I put my hand
upon her; and when she didn't take the hand away, I moved
a little closer to her. I said, very low: 'Oh Zena, I cannot
sleep, for thinking of it all!'
'I daresay.'
I trembled. 'Do you hate me, Zena?' She wouldn't answer. 'I
shan't blame you, if you do. But oh! do you know how
sorry I am?' A woman in the bed beside us gave a shriek -I
think she was a drunkard - and that made both of us jump,
and brought our faces even closer. Her eyes were still hard
shut, but I could tell that she listened. I thought of how
differently we had lain together, only a few hours before.
My wretchedness since then had knocked the fire right out
of me; but because it hadn't been said by either of us, and I
thought it ought to be, I whispered now: 'Oh, if only Diana
hadn't come when she did! It was fun - wasn't it? - before
Diana came and stopped it. . .'
She opened her eyes. 'It was fun,' she said sadly. 'It is
always fun before they catch you.' Then she gazed at me,
and swallowed.
I said: 'It won't be so bad, Zena - will it? You're the only
torn I know in London, now; and since you're all alone, I
thought - we might make a go of it, mightn't we? We might
find a room, in a rooming-house. You could get work, as a
sempstress or a char. I shall buy another suit; and when my
face is all healed up - well, I know a trick or two, for
making money. We shall have your seven pounds back in a
month. We shall have twenty pounds in no time. And then,
you can make your trip out to the colonies; and I' -I gave a
gulp - 'I might go with you. You said they always need
landladies there; surely, they'll always need gentlemen's
tarts, too - even in Australia . . . ?'
She gazed at me as I murmured, saying nothing. Then she
bent her head and kissed me once, very lightly, upon the
lips. Then she turned away again, and at last I slept.
When I woke, it was daylight. I could hear the sounds of
women coughing and spitting, and discussing, in low,
peevish voices, the nights that they had passed, and the
days they must now move on to. I lay with my eyes shut
and my hands before my face: I didn't want to look at them,
or at any part of the squalid world I was now obliged to
share with them. I thought of Zena, and the plan that I had
put to her - I thought: It will be hard, it will be terribly hard;
but Zena will keep me from the worst of the hardness.
Without Zena, it would be hard indeed . . .
Then I took my hands from my face at last, and turned to
gaze at the bed beside me; and it was empty. Zena was
gone. The money was gone. She had risen at dawn, with her
servant's habits; and she had left me, slumbering, with
Understanding it at last left me curiously blank: I think, I
was too giddy already to be dazed any further, too wretched
to descend to greater depths. I rose, and drew my frock
from beneath the mattress - it was creased worse than ever and buttoned it on. The drunkard in the neighbouring bed
had spent a ha'penny on a bowl of tepid water, and she let
me use it, after she had stood in it and washed herself
down, to wipe the last remaining flakes of blood from my
cheeks, and to flatten my hair. My face, when I gazed at it
in the sliver of mirror that was glued to the wall, looked like
a face of wax, that had been set too near a spirit-lamp. My
feet, when I stepped on them, seemed to shriek: the shoes
were ones I had used to wear as a renter, but either my feet
had grown since then, or I had become too used to gentle
leather; I had gained blisters in the walk to the Kilburn
Road, and now the blisters began to rub raw and wet, and
the stockings to fray.
We were not allowed to linger past the morning in the
bedroom of the lodging-house: at eleven o'clock a woman
came, and chivvied us out with a broom. I walked a little
way with the drunkard. When we parted, at the top of
Maida Vale, she took out the smallest screw of tobacco,
rolled two thread-like cigarettes, and gave me one.
Tobacco, she said, was the best cure for a bruise. I sat on a
bench, and smoked till my fingers scorched; and then I
considered my plight.
My situation, after all, was a ridiculously familiar one: I
had been as cold and as ill and as wretched as this four
years before, after my flight from Stamford Hill. Then,
however, I had at least had money, and handsome clothes; I
had had food, and cigarettes - had all I required to keep me,
not happy, but certainly quick. Now, I had nothing. I was
nauseous with hunger and with the after-effects of wine;
and to get so much as a penny for a cone of eels, I should
have to beg for it - or do what Zena recommended, and try
my luck as a tart, up against some dripping wall. The idea
of begging was hateful to me - I could not bear the thought
of trying to extract pity and coins from the kind of
gentlemen who, a fortnight before, had admired the cut of
my suit or the flash of my cuff-links as I passed amongst
them at Diana's side. The thought of being fucked by one of
them, as a girl, was even worse.
I got up: it was too cold to sit upon the bench all day. I
remembered what Zena had said the night before - that I
must go to my folks, that my folks would take me. I had
said that I had no one; but now I thought that there might,
after all, be one place I could try. I did not think of my real
family, in Whitstable: I had finished with them, it seemed
to me then, for ever. I thought instead of a lady who had
been like a mother to me, once; and of her daughter, who
had been a kind of sister. I thought of Mrs Milne, and
Gracie. I had had no contact with them in a year and a half.
I had promised to visit them, but had never been at liberty
to do so. I had promised to send them my address: I had
never sent them so much as a note to say I missed them, or
a card on Grade's birthday. The truth was that, after my first
few, strange days at Felicity Place, I had not missed them at
all. But now I remembered their kindness, and wanted to
weep. Diana and Zena between them had made an outcast
of me; but Mrs Milne -I was sure of it! - was bound to take
me in.
And so I walked, from Maida Vale to Green Street - walked
creepingly, in my misery and my shame and my pinching
boots, as if every step were taken barefoot on open swords.
The house, when I reached it at last, seemed shabby - but
then, I knew what it was, to leave a place for something
grand, and come back to find it humbler than you knew.
There was no flower before the door, and no three-legged
cat - but then again, it was winter, and the street very cold
and bleak. I could think only of my own sorry plight; and
when I rang the bell and no one came, I thought: Well, I
will sit upon the step, Mrs Milne is never out for long; and
if I grow numb from the cold, it will serve me right. . .
But then I pressed my face to the glass beside the door and
peered into the hall beyond, and I saw that the walls - that
used to have Gracie's pictures on them, the Light of the
World and the Hindoo idol, and the others - I saw that they
were bare; that there were only marks upon them, where the
pictures had been fastened. And at that, I trembled. I caught
hold of the doorknocker and banged it, in a kind of panic;
and I called into the letter-box: 'Mrs Milne! Mrs Milne!' and
'Gracie! Grace Milne!' But my voice sounded hollow, and
the hall stayed dark. Then there came a shout, from the
tenement behind. 'Are you looking for the old lady and her
daughter? They have gone, dear - gone a month ago!'
I turned, and looked up. From a balcony above the street a
man was calling to me, and nodding to the house. I went
out, and gazed miserably up at him, and said, Where had
they gone to?
He shrugged. 'Gone to her sister's, is what I heard. The lady
was took very bad, in the autumn; and the girl being a
simpleton - you knew that, did you? - they didn't think it
clever to leave the pair of them alone. They have took all
the furniture; I daresay that the house will come up for sale
..." He looked at my cheek. 'That's a lovely black eye you
have,' he said, as if I might not have noticed. 'Just like in the
song - ain't it? Except you only have one of 'em!'
I stared at him, and shivered while he laughed. A little fairhaired girl had appeared on the balcony beside him, and
now gripped the rail and put her feet upon the bars. I said,
'Where does the lady live - the sister they've gone to?' and
he pulled at his ear and looked thoughtful.
'Now, I did know, but have forgotten it ... I believe it was
Bristol; or it may have been Bath . . .' 'Not London, then?'
'Oh no, certainly not London. Now, was it Brighton . . . ?' I
turned away from him, to gaze back up at Mrs Milne's
house - at the window of my old room, and at the balcony
where I had liked, in summer-time, to sit. When I looked at
the man again, he had his little girl in his arms, and the
wind had caught her golden hair and made it flap about his
cheeks: and I remembered them both, then, as the father
and daughter that I had seen clapping their hands to the
sound of a mandolin, on that balmy June evening, in the
week I met Diana. They had lost their home and been given
a new one. They had been visited by that charity-visitor
with the romantic-sounding name.
Florence! I did not know that I had remembered her. I had
not thought of her at all, for a year and more.
If only I might meet her, now! She found houses for the
poor; she might find a house for me. She had been kind to
me once - wouldn't she be kind, if I appealed to her, a
second time? I thought of her comely face, and her curling
hair. I had lost Diana, I had lost Zena; and now I had lost
Mrs Milne and Grace. In all of London she was the closest
thing I had, at that moment, to a friend - and it was a friend
just then that, above all else, I longed for.
On the balcony above me, the man had turned away. Now I
called him back: 'Hey, mister!' I walked closer to the wall
of the tenement, and gazed up at him: he and his daughter
leaned from the balcony rail - she looked like an angel on
the ceiling of a church. I said, 'You won't know me; but I
lived here once, with Mrs Milne. I am looking for a girl,
who called on you when you moved in. She worked for the
people that found you your flat.'
He frowned. 'A girl, you say?'
'A girl with curly hair. A plain-faced girl called Florence.
Don't you know who I mean? Don't you have the name of
the charity she worked for? It was run by a lady — a very
clever-looking lady. The lady played the mandolin.'
He had continued to frown, and to scratch at his head; but at
this last detail he brightened. That one,' he said; 'yes, I
remember her. And that gal what helped her, that was your
chum, was it?'
I said it was. Then: 'And the charity? Do you remember
them, and where their rooms are?'
'Where their rooms are, let me see ... I did go there wunst;
but I don't know as I can quite recall the partic'lar number. I
do know as it was a place rather close to the Angel,
'Near Sam Collins's?' I asked.
'Past Sam Collins's, on Upper Street. Not so far as the post
office. A little doorway on the left-hand side, somewhere
between a public-house and a tailor's ..."
This was all he could recall; I thought it might be enough. I
thanked him, and he smiled. 'What a lovely black eye,' he
said again, but to his daughter this time. 'Just like the song ain't it, Betty?'
By now I felt as if I had been on my feet for a month. I
suspected that my boots had worn their way right through
my stockings, and had started on the bare flesh of my toes
and heels and ankles. But I did not stop at another bench,
and untie my laces, in order to find out. The wind had
picked up a little and, though it was only two o'clock or so,
the sky was grey as lead. I wasn't sure what time the charity
offices might close; I wasn't sure how long it would take me
to find them; I didn't know if Florence would even be there,
when I did. So I walked rather quickly up Pentonville Hill,
and let my feet be rubbed to puddings, and tried to plan
what I would say to her when I found her. This, however,
proved difficult. After all, she was a girl I hardly knew;
worse - I could not help but recall this, now -I had once
arranged to meet her, then let her down. Would she, even,
remember me at all? In that gloomy Green Street
passageway I had been certain that she would. But with
every burning step, I grew less sure of it.
It did not, as it turned out, take me very long to find the
right office. The man's memory was a good one, and Upper
Street itself seemed wonderfully unchanged since his last
visit there: the public-house and the tailor's were quite as he
had described them, close together on the left-hand side of
the street, just past the music hall. In between them were
three or four doors, leading to the rooms and offices above;
and upon one of these was screwed a little enamel plaque,
which said: Ponsonby's Model Dwelling Houses. Directress
Miss J. A. D. Derby - I remembered this very well now as
the name of the lady with the mandolin. Beneath the plaque
was a handwritten, rain-spattered note with an arrow
pointing to a bell-pull at the side of the door. Please Ring, it
said, and Enter. So, with some trepidation, I did both.
The passageway behind the door was very long and very
gloomy. It led to a window, which looked out at a view of
bricks and oozing drain-pipes; and from here there was only
one way to proceed, and that was upwards, via a set of
naked stairs. The banister was sticky, but I grasped it, and
began to climb. Before I had reached the third or fourth
step, a door at the top of the staircase had opened, a head
had emerged in the gap, and a lady's voice called
pleasantly: 'Hallo down there! It's rather steep, but worth
the effort. Do you need a light?'
I answered that I did not, and climbed faster. At the top, a
little out of breath, I was led by the lady into a tiny chamber
that held a desk, and a cabinet, and a set of mismatched
chairs. When she gestured, I sat; she herself perched upon
the edge of the desk, and folded her arms. From a room
nearby came the fitful crack-crack-crack of a typewriting
'Well,' she said, 'what can we do for you? I say, what an eye
you have!' I had removed my hat, as if I were a man, and, as
she studied my cheek - and then, more warily, my closeclipped head -I fiddled with the ribbon on the hatband,
rather awkwardly. She said, 'Have you an appointment with
us?' and I answered that I hadn't come about a house, at all.
I had come about a girl.
'A girl?'
'A woman, I should say. Her name is Florence, and she
works here, for the charity.'
She gave a frown. 'Florence,' she said; then 'are you sure?
There's really only Miss Derby, myself, and another lady.'
'Miss Derby,' I said quickly, 'knows who I mean. She
definitely used to work here; for the last time I saw her she
said - she said -'
'She said . . . ?' prompted the lady, more warily than ever for my mouth had fallen open, and my hand had flown to
my swollen cheek; and now I cursed, in a hopeless kind of
miserable fury.
'She said that she was leaving this post,' I said, 'and moving
to another. What a fool I've been! I had forgotten it till now.
That means that Florence hasn't worked here for a year and
a half, or more!'
The lady nodded. 'Ah, well, you see, that was before my
time. But, as you say, Miss Derby is sure to remember her.'
That, at least, was still true. I lifted my head. 'Then, may I
see her?'
'You may - but not today; nor even tomorrow, I'm afraid.
She won't be in now until Friday -'
'Friday!' That was terrible. 'But I must see Florence today, I
really must! Surely you have a list, or a book, or something,
that says where she has gone to. Surely somebody here
must know.'
The lady seemed surprised. 'Well,' she said slowly, 'perhaps
we do ... But I cannot really give that sort of detail out, you
know, to strangers.' She thought for a moment. 'Could you
not write her a letter, and let us forward it . . . ?' I shook my
head, and felt my eyes begin to prick. She must have seen,
and misunderstood, for she said then, rather gently: 'Ah perhaps you're not very handy with a pen . . . ?'
I would have admitted to anything, for the sake of a kind
word. I shook my head again: 'Not very, no.'
She was silent for a moment. Perhaps she thought, that
there could be nothing very sinister about my quest, if I
could not even read or write. At any rate, she rose at last
and said, 'Wait here.' Then she left the room and entered
another, across the hall. The sound of the typewriter grew
louder for a second, then ceased altogether; in its place I
heard the murmur of voices, the prolonged rustling of
paper, and finally the slam of a cabinet drawer.
The lady reappeared, bearing a white page - a letter, by the
look of it - in her hand. 'Success! Thanks to Miss Derby's
beautiful clerking system we have tracked your Florence or, at least, a Florence - down; she left here just before both
Miss Bennet and I began, in 1892. However' - she grew
grave - 'we really do not think that we can give you her own
address; but she left here to work at a home for friendless
girls, and we can tell you where that is. It's a place called
Freemantle House, on the Stratford Road.'
A home for friendless girls! The very idea of it made me
tremble and grow weak. 'That must be her,' I said. 'But Stratford? So far?' I shifted my feet beneath my chair, and
felt the leather slide against my bleeding heels. The boots
themselves were thick with mud; my skirt had gained a frill
of filth, six inches deep, at the hem. Against the window
there came the spatter of rain. 'Stratford,' I said again, so
miserably that the woman drew near and put her hand upon
my arm.
'Have you not the fare?' she asked gently. I shook my head.
'I have lost all my money. I have lost everything!' I placed a
hand over my eyes, and leaned in utter weariness against
the desk. As I did so, I saw what lay upon it. It was the
letter. The lady had placed it there, face upwards, knowing thinking -that I could not read it. It was very brief; it was
signed by Florence herself- Florence Banner, I now saw her
full name to be - and was addressed to Miss Derby. Please
accept notice of my resignation ... it ran. I didn't read that
part. For at the top right-hand corner of the page there was a
date, and an address - not that of Freemantle House but,
clearly, the home address that I was not allowed to know. A
number, followed by the name of a street: Quilter Street,
Bethnal Green, London E. I memorised it at once.
Meanwhile, the woman talked kindly on. I had scarcely
heard her, but now I raised my head and saw what she was
about. She had taken a little key from her pocket and
unlocked one of the drawers in the desk. She was saying,'. .
. not something we make a habit of doing, at all; but I can
see that you are very weary. If you take a bus from here to
Aldgate, you can pick up another there, I believe, that will
take you along the Mile End Road, to Stratford.' She held
out her hand. There were three pennies in it. 'And perhaps
you might get yourself a cup of tea, along the way?'
I took the coins, and mumbled some word of thanks. As I
did so a bell rang, close at hand, and we both gave a start.
She glanced at a clock upon the wall. 'My last clients of the
day,' she said.
I took the hint, and rose and put on my hat. There were
footsteps in the passageway below, now, and the sound of
stumbling on the stairs. She ushered me to the door, and
called to her visitors: 'Come up, that's right. It's rather steep,
I know, but worth the effort. . .' A young man, followed by
a woman, emerged from the gloom. They were both rather
swarthy -Italians, I guessed, or Greeks - and looked terribly
pinched and poor. We all shuffled around in the doorway of
the office for a moment, smiling and awkward; then at last
the lady and the young couple were inside the room, and I
was alone at the head of the staircase.
The lady raised her head, and caught my eye.
'Good luck!' she called, a little distractedly. 'I do so hope
you find your friend.'
Having no intention at all, now, of travelling to Stratford, I
did not, as the lady recommended, catch a bus. I did,
however, buy myself a cup of tea, from a stall with an
awning to it, on the High Street. And when I gave back my
cup to the girl, I nodded. 'Which way,' I asked, 'to Bethnal
I had never been much further east before - alone, and on
foot - than Clerkenwell. Now, limping down the City Road
towards Old Street, I felt the beginnings of a new kind of
nervousness. It had grown darker during my time in the
office, and wet and foggy. The street-lamps had all been lit,
and every carriage had a lantern swinging from it; City
Road was not, however, like Soho, where light streamed
upon the pavements from a thousand flares and windows.
For every ten paces of my journey that were illuminated by
a pool of gas-light, there were a further twenty that were
cast in gloom.
The gloom lifted a little at Old Street itself, for here there
were offices, and crowded bus stops and shops. As I walked
towards the Hackney Road, however, it seemed only to
deepen, and my surroundings to grow shabbier. The
crossings at the Angel had been decent enough; here the
roads were so clogged with manure that, every time a
vehicle rumbled by, I was showered with filth. My fellow
pedestrians, too - who, so far, had all been honest workingpeople, men and women in coats and hats as faded as my
own - grew poorer. Their suits were not just dingy, but
ragged. They had boots, but no stockings. The men wore
scarves instead of collars, and caps rather than bowlers; the
women wore shawls; the girls wore dirty aprons, or no
apron at all. Everyone seemed to have some kind of burden
- a basket, or a bundle, or a child upon their hip. The rain
fell harder.
I had been told by the tea-girl at the Angel to head for
Columbia Market; now, a little way along the Hackney
Road, I found myself suddenly on the edge of its great,
shadowy courtyard. I shivered. The huge granite hall, its
towers and tracery as elaborate as those on a gothic
cathedral, was quite dark and still. A few rough-looking
fellows with cigarettes and bottles slouched in its arches,
blowing on their hands to keep the cold off.
A sudden clamour in the clock tower made me start. Some
complicated pealing of bells - as fussy and useless as the
great abandoned market hall itself - was chiming out the
hour: it was a quarter-past four. This was far too early to
visit Florence's house, if Florence herself was at work all
day: so I stood for another hour in one of the arches of the
market where the wind was not so cutting and the rain was
not so hard. Only when the bells had rung half-past five did
I step again into the courtyard, and look about me: I was
now almost numb. There was a little girl nearby, carrying a
great tray about her neck, filled with bundles of
watercresses. I went up to her, and asked how far it was to
Quilter Street; and then, because she looked so sad and cold
and damp - and also because I had a confused idea that I
must not turn up on Florence's doorstep entirely emptyhanded -I bought the biggest of her cress bouquets. It cost a
With this cradled awkwardly in the crook of my stiff arm I
began the short walk to the street I wanted; soon I found
myself at the end of a wide terrace of low, flat houses - not
a squalid terrace, by any means, but not a very smart one
either, for the glass in some of the street-lamps was
cracked, or missing entirely, and the pavement was
blocked, here and there, by piles of broken furniture, and by
heaps of what the novels politely term ashes. I looked at the
number of the nearest door: number 1. I started slowly
down the street. Number 5 ... number 9 ... number 11 ... I
felt weaker than ever ... 15 ...
17 ... 19 ...
Here I stopped, for now I could see the house I sought quite
clearly. Its drapes were drawn against the dark, and
luminous with lamplight; and seeing them, I felt suddenly
quite sick with apprehension. I placed a hand against the
wall, and tried to steady myself; a boy walked by me,
whistling, and gave me a wink -I suppose he thought I had
been drinking. When he had passed I looked about me at
the unfamiliar houses in a kind of panic: I could remember
the sense of purpose that had visited me in Green Street, but
it seemed a piece of wildness, now, a piece of comedy - I
would tell it to Florence, and she would laugh in my face.
But I had come so far; and there was nowhere to turn back
to. So I crept to the rosy window, and then to the door; and
then I knocked, and waited. I seemed to have presented
myself at a thousand thresholds that day, and been cruelly
disappointed or repulsed, at all of them. If there was no
word of kindness for me here, I thought, I would die.
At last there came a murmur and a step, and the door was
opened; and it was Florence herself who stood there –
looking remarkably as she had when I had seen her first,
peering into the darkness, framed against the light and with
the same glorious halo of burning hair. I gave a sigh that
was also a shudder - then I saw a movement at her hip, and
saw what she carried there. It was a baby. I looked from the
baby to the room behind, and here there was another figure:
a man, seated in his shirt-sleeves before a blazing fire, his
eyes raised from the paper at his knee to gaze at me in mild
I looked from him back to Florence.
'Yes?' she said. I saw that she didn't remember me at all.
She didn't remember me and - worse - she had a husband,
and a child.
I did not think that I could bear it. My head whirled, I
closed my eyes - and sank upon her doorstep in a swoon.
Chapter 16
When next I knew myself I was lying flat upon a rug with
my feet apparently raised on a little cushion; there was the
warmth and the crackling of a fire at my side, and the low
murmur of voices somewhere near. I opened my eyes: the
room turned horribly and the rug seemed to dip, so I closed
them again at once, and kept them tight shut until the floor,
like a spinning coin, seemed slowly to cease its lurching
and grow still.
After that it was rather wonderful simply to lie in the glow
of the fire, feeling the life creep back into my numbed and
aching limbs; I forced myself, however, to consider my
peculiar situation, and pay a little thoughtful heed to my
surroundings. I was, I realised, in Florence's parlour: she
and her husband must have lifted me over their threshold
and made me comfortable before their hearth. It was their
murmurs that I could hear: they stood a little way behind
me -they had evidently not caught the flash of my opening
eyes -and discussed me, in rather wondering tones.
'But who might she be?' I heard the man say.
'I don't know.' This was Florence. There was a creak,
followed by a silence, in which I felt her squinting at my
features. 'And yet,' she went on, 'there is something a little
bit familiar about her face ..."
'Look at her cheek,' said the man in a lower voice. 'Look at
her poor dress and bonnet. Look at her hair! Do you think
she might've been in prison? Could she be one of your gals,
just come from a reformat'ry?' There was another pause;
perhaps Florence shrugged. 'I do think she must've been in
prison, though,' the man went on, 'judging by the state of
her poor hair ..." I felt slightly indignant at that; and
indignation made me twitch. 'Look out!' said the man then.
'She is waking up.'
I opened my eyes again to see him stooping over me. He
was a very gentle-featured man, with short-cut hair of a
reddish-golden hue, and a full set of whiskers that made
him look a little like the sailor on the Players' packets. The
thought made me long all at once for a cigarette, and I gave
a dry little cough. The man squatted, and patted my
shoulder. 'Ho there, miss,' he said. 'Are you well, dear? Are
you well at last? You are quite, you know, amongst friends.'
His voice and manner were so very kind that - still weak
and slightly bewildered from my swoon -I felt the tears
rising to my eyes, and raised a hand to my brow to press
them back. When I took the hand away, there seemed blood
upon it; I gave a cry, thinking I had set my nose off
bleeding once again. But it was not blood. It was only that
the rain had soaked into my cheap hat, and the dye had run
all down my brows in great wet streaks of crimson.
What a guy Diana had made of me! The thought made me
weep at last in earnest, in terrible, shaming gulps. At that,
the man produced a handkerchief, and patted me once again
upon the arm. 'I expect,' he said, 'that you would like a cup
of something hot?' I nodded, and he rose and moved away.
In his place came Florence. She must have put her baby
down somewhere, for now she had her arms folded stiffly
across her chest.
She asked me: 'Are you feeling better?' Her voice was not
quite as kind as the man's had been, and her gaze seemed
rather sterner. I nodded to her, then with her help raised
myself from the floor into an armchair near the fire. The
baby, I saw, was lying on its back on another, clasping and
unclasping its little hands. From a room next door - the
kitchen, I guessed - came the chink of crockery and a
tuneless whistle. I blew my nose, and wiped my head; then
wept some more; then grew a little calmer.
I looked again at Florence and said, 'I am sorry, to have
turned up here in such a state.' She said nothing. 'You will
be wondering, I suppose, who I am ..." She gave a faint
smile. 'We have been a little, yes.'
'I'm,' I began - then stopped, and coughed, to mask my
hesitation. What could I say to her? I'm the girl who flirted
with you once eighteen months ago? I'm the girl who asked
you to supper, then left you standing, without a word, on
Judd Street? 'I'm a friend of Miss Derby's,' I said at last.
Florence blinked. 'Miss Derby?' she said. 'Miss Derby, from
the Ponsonby Trust?'
I nodded. 'Yes. I - I met you once, a long time ago. I was
passing through Bethnal Green, on a visit, and thought I
might call. I brought you some watercresses ..." We turned
our heads and gazed at them. They had been placed on a
table near the door and looked very sad, for I had fallen
upon them when I swooned. The leaves were crushed and
blackened, the stems broken, the paper damp and green.
Florence said, 'That was kind of you.' I smiled a little
nervously. For a second there was a silence - then the baby
gave a kick and a yell, and she bent to pick it up and hold it
against her breast, saying as she did so: 'Shall Mama take
you? There, now.' Then the man reappeared, bearing a cup
of tea and a plate of bread and butter which he set, with a
smile, on the arm of my chair. Florence placed her chin
upon the baby's head. 'Ralph,' she said, 'this lady is a friend
of Miss Derby's - do you remember, Miss Derby that I used
to work for?'
'Good heavens,' said the man - Ralph. He was still in his
shirt-sleeves; now he picked up his jacket from the back of
a chair and put it on. I busied myself with my cup and plate.
The tea was very hot and sweet: the best tea, I thought, that
I had ever tasted. The baby gave another cry, and Florence
began to sway and jiggle, and to smooth the child's head,
distractedly, with her cheek. Soon the cry became a gurgle,
and then a sigh; and hearing it, I sighed too - but turned it
into a breath for cooling my tea with, in case they thought I
was about to start up weeping again.
There was another silence; then, 'I'm afraid I've forgotten
your name,' said Florence. To Ralph she explained: 'It
seems we met once.'
I cleared my throat. 'Miss Astley,' I said. 'Miss Nancy
Astley.' Florence nodded; Ralph held out his hand for mine,
and shook it warmly.
'I'm very glad to meet you, Miss Astley,' he said. Then he
gestured to my cheek. 'That's a smart eye you have.'
I said, 'It is, rather, ain't it?'
He looked kind. 'Perhaps it was the blow, as made you
faint. You gave us quite a scare.'
Tm sorry. I think you're right, it must have been the blow. I
- I was struck by a man with a ladder, in the street.'
'A ladder!'
'Yes, he - he turned too sharp, not seeing me and -'
'Well!' said Ralph. 'Now, you'd never believe such a thing
could happen, would you, outside of a comedy in the
I gave him a wan sort of smile, then lowered my eyes and
started on the bread and butter. Florence was studying me, I
thought, rather carefully.
Then the baby sneezed and, as Florence took a
handkerchief to its nose, I said half-heartedly: 'What a
handsome child!' At once, his parents turned their eyes
upon him and gave identical, foolish smiles of pleasure and
concern. Florence lifted him a little way away from her, the
lamplight fell upon him; and I saw with surprise that he
really was a pretty boy - not at all like his mother, but with
fine features and very dark hair and a tiny, jutting pink lip.
Ralph leaned to stroke his son's jerking head. 'He is a
beauty,' he said; 'but he is dozier, tonight, than he should
be. We leave him in the daytime with a gal across the street,
and we are sure that she puts laud'num in his milk, to stop
his cries. Not,' he added quickly, 'as I am blaming her. She
must take in that many kids, to bring the money in, the
noise when they all start up is deafening. Still, I wish she
wouldn't. I hardly think it can be very healthful..." We
discussed this for a moment, then admired the baby for a
little longer; then grew silent again.
'So,' said Ralph doggedly, 'you are a friend of Miss
Derby's?' I looked quickly at Florence. She had
recommenced her jiggling, but was still rather thoughtful. I
said, 'That's right.' 'And how is Miss Derby?' said Ralph
then. 'Oh, well, you know Miss Derby!' 'Just the same, then,
is she?' 'Exactly the same,' I said. 'Exactly.' 'Still with the
Ponsonby, then?'
'Still with the Ponsonby. Still doing her good works. Still,
you know, playing her mandolin.' I raised my hands, and
gave a few half-hearted imaginary strums; but as I did so
Florence ceased her swaying, and I felt her glance grow
hard. I looked hurriedly back to Ralph. He had smiled at my
'Miss Derby's mandolin,' he said, as if the memory amused
him. 'How many homeless families must she not've cheered
with it!' He winked. 'I had forgotten all about it. . .'
'So had I.' This was Florence, and she did not sound at all
ironical. I chewed very hard and fast on a piece of crust.
Ralph smiled again, then said, very kindly: 'And where was
it you met Flo?'
I swallowed. 'Well -' I began.
'I believe,' said Florence herself, 'I believe it was in Green
Street, wasn't it, Miss Astley? In Green Street, just off the
Gray's Inn Road?' I put down my plate, and raised my eyes
to hers. I knew one second's pleasure, to find that she had
not after all quite forgotten the girl who had studied her, so
saucily, on that warm June night so long ago; then I saw
how hard her expression was, and I trembled.
'Oh dear,' I said, closing my eyes and putting a hand to my
brow. 'I think I am not quite well after all.' I felt Ralph take
a step towards me, then grow still: Florence must have
stopped him with some significant look.
'I think Cyril might go up, now, Ralph,' she said quietly.
There was the sound of the baby being passed over, then of
a door opening and shutting, and finally of boots upon a
staircase, and the creaking of floorboards in the room above
our heads. Then there was silence; Florence lowered herself
into the other armchair, and sighed.
'Would it really make you very ill, Miss Astley,' she said in
a tired voice, 'to tell me just why it is you're here?' I looked
at her, but couldn't speak. 'I can't believe Miss Derby really
recommended you to come.'
'No,' I said. 'I only saw Miss Derby that once, in Green
'Then who was it told you where I live?'
'Another lady at the Ponsonby office,' I said. 'At least, she
didn't tell me, but she had your address on her desk and I saw it.'
'You saw it.'
'And thought you would visit..."
I bit my lip. 'I'm in a spot of trouble,' I said. 'I remembered
you -' Remembered you, I almost added, as rather kinder
than you are proving yourself to be. 'The lady at the office
said you work at a home for friendless girls ..."
'And so I do! But this ain't it. This is my home.'
'But I am quite, quite friendless.' My voice shook. 'I am
more friendless than you can possibly know.'
'You are certainly very changed,' she said after a moment,
'since I saw you last.' I looked down at my crumpled frock,
my terrible boots. Then I looked at her. She, I now saw,
was also changed. She seemed older and thinner, and the
thinness didn't suit her. Her hair, which I remembered as so
curly, she had pulled back into a tight little knot at the back
of her head, and the dress she was wearing was plain and
very dark. All in all, she looked as sober as Mrs Hooper,
back at Felicity Place.
I took a breath to steady my voice. 'What can I do?' I said
simply. 'I've nowhere to go. I've no money, no home . . .'
'I am sorry for you, Miss Astley,' she answered awkwardly.
'But Bethnal Green is busting with badly-off girls. If I was
to let them all come and stay, I should have to live in a
castle! Besides, I -I don't know you, or anything about you.'
'Please,' I said. 'Just for one night. If you only knew how
many doors I have been turned away from. I really think
that, if you send me out into the street, I shall keep walking
until I reach a river or a canal; and then I shall drown
She frowned, then put a finger to her lips and bit at a nail;
all her nails, I now noticed, were very short and chewed.
'What kind of trouble are you in, exactly?' she said at last.
'Mr Banner thought you might have come from - well, from
I shook my head, and then said wearily: 'The truth is, I've
been living with someone; and they have thrown me out.
They have kept my things - oh! I had such handsome
things! - and they have left me so miserable and poor and
bewildered ..." My voice grew thick. Florence watched me
in silence for a moment. Then she said, rather carefully I
thought, 'And this person was .. . ?'
But that made me hesitate. If I told her the truth, what
would she make of it? I had thought her almost tommish,
once; but now — well, maybe she had only ever been an
ordinary girl, asking me to a lecture for friendship's sake.
Or perhaps she had liked girls once, then turned her back on
them - like Kitty! That thought made me cautious: if a torn
with a bruise turned up at Kitty's door, I knew very well
what a welcome she would get. I put my head in my hands.
'It was a gent,' I said quietly, 'I've been living in the house
of a gent, in St John's Wood, for a year and a half. I let him
make me a' -I remembered a phrase of Mrs Milne's - 'a pack
of promises. He bought me all manner of stuff. And now . .
.' I raised my eyes to hers. 'You must think me very wicked.
He said he would marry me!'
She look terribly surprised; but she had also begun to look
sorry, too. 'It was this bloke blacked your eye for you, I
suppose,' she said, 'and not a ladder, at all.'
I nodded, and raised a hand to the bruise at my cheek; then
I put my fingers to my hair, remembering that. 'What a
devil he was!' I said then. 'He was rich as anything, could
do what he pleased. He saw me on my balcony, just as you
did, in a pair of trousers. He -' I blushed. 'He used to like to
make me dress up, as a boy, hi a suit like a sailor ..."
'Oh!' she cried, as if she had never heard anything more
awful. 'But the wealthy ones are the worst, I swear it! Have
you no family to go to?"
'They - they've all thrown me over, because of this
She shook her head at that; then grew thoughtful again, and
glanced quickly at my waist. 'You ain't - you ain't in
trouble, are you?' she asked quietly.
'In trouble? I -' I couldn't help it: it was as if she was
handing me the play text, for me to read it back to her. 'I
was in trouble,' I said, with my eyes on my lap, 'but the gent
fixed that when he beat me. It was on account of it, I think,
that I was so poorly, earlier on ..."
At that, there came a very queer and kind expression to her
face; and she nodded, and swallowed - and I saw I had
convinced her.
'If you truly have nowhere, it will not hurt, I suppose, for
you to stay a night - just one night - here with us. And
tomorrow I shall give you the names of some places where
you might find a bed . ..'
'Oh!' I felt ready to swoon all over again, in sheer relief.
'And Mr Banner,' I said, 'won't mind it?'
Mr Banner, it turned out, had no objection to my staying
there at all; indeed, as before, he proved pleasanter than his
wife, and willing to go to all sorts of trouble for the sake of
my comfort. When they ate - for I had interrupted them as
they were about to take their tea - it was he who set a plate
before me and filled it with stew. He brought me a shawl
when I shivered; and, when he saw me limping into the
room after a visit to the privy, he made me pull off my
boots, and fetched a bowl of salty water for me to soak my
blistered feet in. Finally - and most wonderfully of all - he
took down a tin of tobacco from the shelf of a bookcase,
rolled two neat cigarettes, and offered me one to smoke.
Florence, meanwhile, sat all night a little apart from us, at
the supper-table, working through a pile of papers - lists, I
fondly supposed them to be, of friendless girls; accountsheets, perhaps, from Freemantle House. When we lit our
cigarettes she looked up and sniffed, but made no
complaint; occasionally she would sigh or yawn, or rub her
neck as if it ached, and then her husband would address her
with some word of encouragement or affection. Once the
baby cried: she tilted her head, but didn't stir; it was Ralph
who, all ungrudgingly, rose to see to it. She simple worked
on: writing, reading, comparing pages, addressing
envelopes . . . She worked while Ralph yawned, and finally
stood and stretched and touched his lips to her cheek and
bade us both a polite good-night; she worked while I
yawned, and began to doze. At last, at around eleven
o'clock, she shuffled her papers together and passed her
hand over her face. When she saw me she gave a start: I
really believe that, in her industry, she had forgotten me.
Now, remembering, she first blushed, then frowned. 'I had
better go up, Miss Astley,' she said. 'You won't mind
sleeping in here, I hope? I'm afraid there's nowhere else for
you.' I smiled. I did not mind - though I thought there must
be an empty room upstairs, and wondered, privately, why
she did not put me in it. She helped me push the two
armchairs together, then went to fetch a pillow, a blanket
and a sheet.
'Do you have everything you need?' she asked then. 'The
privy is out the back, as you know. There's a jug of clean
water kept in the pantry, if you're thirsty. Ralph will be up
at six or so, and I shall follow him at seven - or earlier, if
Cyril wakes me. You'll have to leave at eight, of course,
when I do.' I nodded quickly. I wouldn't think about the
morning, just yet.
There was an awkward silence. She looked so tired and
ordinary I had a foolish urge to kiss her cheek good-night,
as Ralph had. Of course, I did not; I only took a step
towards her as she nodded to me and prepared to make her
way upstairs, and said, 'I am more grateful to you, Mrs
Banner, than I can say. You have been very kind to me you, who hardly know me; and more especially your
husband, who doesn't know me at all.'
As I spoke she turned to me, and blinked. Then she placed
her hand on a chair-back, and smiled a curious smile. 'Did
you think he was my husband?' she said. I hesitated,
suddenly flustered.
'Well, I -'
'He ain't my husband! He's my brother.' Her brother! She
continued to smile at my confusion, and then to laugh: for a
moment she was the pert girl I had spoken with in Green
Street, all those months before . . .
But then the baby, in the room above us, gave a cry, and we
both raised our eyes to the sound, and I felt myself blush.
And when she saw that, her smile faded. 'Cyril ain't mine,'
she said quickly, 'though I call him mine. His mother used
to lodge with us, and we took him on when she — left us.
He is very dear to us, now . . .'
The awkward way she said it showed there was some story
there - perhaps the mother was in prison; perhaps the baby
was really a cousin's, or a sister's, or a sweetheart's of
Ralph's. Such things happened often enough in Whitstable
families: I didn't think much of it. I only nodded; and then I
yawned. And seeing me, she yawned too.
'Good-night, Miss Astley,' she said from behind her hand.
She did not look like the Green Street girl now. She looked
only weary again, and plainer than ever.
I waited a moment while she stepped upstairs -I heard her
shuffling above me, and guessed of course that she must
share her chamber with the baby - then I took up a lamp,
and made my way out to the privy. The yard was very
small, and overlooked on every side by walls and darkened
windows; I lingered for a second on the chilly flags, gazing
at the stars, sniffing at the unfamiliar, faintly riverish,
faintly cabbagey, scents of East London. A rustling from
the neighbouring yard disturbed me and I started, fearing
rats. It was not rats, however, but rabbits: four of them, in a
hutch, their eyes flashing like jewels in the light I turned on
I slept in my petticoats, half-lying, half-sitting between the
two armchairs, with the blankets wrapped around me and
my dress laid flat upon them for extra warmth. It does not
sound very comfortable; it was, in fact, extraordinarily
cosy, and for all that I had so much to keep me ill and
fretful, I found I could only yawn and smile to feel the
cushions so soft beneath my back, and the dying fire warm
beside me. I was woken, in the night, twice: the first time
by the sound of shouting in the street, and the slam of doors
and the rattle of the poker in the grate, in the house next
door; and the second time by the crying of the baby, in
Florence's room. This sound, in the darkness, made me
shiver, for it recalled to me all the awful nights that I had
spent at Mrs Best's, in that grey chamber overlooking
Smithfield Market. It did not, however, last for very long. I
heard Florence rise and step across the floor, and then
return -with Cyril, I supposed - to bed. And after that he
didn't stir again, and neither did I.
When I woke next morning it was at the slam of the back
door: this was Ralph, I guessed, leaving for work, for the
clock showed ten to seven. There was movement overhead
soon after that, as Florence rose and dressed, and much
activity in the street outside - amazingly close, it all
sounded to me, who was used to slumbering undisturbed by
early risers in Diana's quiet villa.
I lay quite still, the contentment of the night all seeping
from me. I didn't want to rise and face the day, to pull my
pinching boots back on, bid Florence good-bye, and be a
friendless girl again. The parlour had grown very cold
overnight, and my little makeshift bed seemed the only
warm place in it. I pulled the blankets over my head, and
groaned; groaning, I found, was rather satisfying, so I
groaned still louder ... I stopped only when I heard the click
of the parlour door - then lifted the blankets from my face
to see Florence squinting at me, gravely, through the
'You're not ill again?' she said. I shook my head.
'No. I was only - groaning.'
'Oh.' She looked away. 'Ralph has left some tea. Shall I
fetch you some?'
'Yes, please.'
'And then - then you must get up, I'm afraid.'
'Of course,' I said. 'I shall get up now.' But when she had
gone I found I could not get up, at all. I could only lie. I
needed to visit the privy again, rather badly; I knew that it
was dreadfully rude to lie abed like this, in a stranger's
parlour. Yet I felt as if I had been visited in the night by a
surgeon, who had taken all my bones away and replaced
them with bars of lead. I could no nothing at all - except lie
Florence brought me my tea, and I drank it - then lay back
again. I heard her moving about in the kitchen, washing the
baby; then she returned and pulled the curtains open,
'It's a quarter to eight, Miss Astley,' she said. 'I have to take
Cyril across the street. You will be up and dressed, now,
won't you, when I come back? You really will?'
'Oh, certainly,' I said; yet when she reappeared, five
minutes later, I had not budged an inch. She gazed at me,
and shook her head. I gazed back at her.
'You know, don't you, that you cannot stay here. I must go
to work, and I must go now. If you keep me any longer, I
shall be late.' With that, she caught hold of the bottom of
the blanket. But I caught hold of the top.
'I can't do it,' I said. 'I must be sick, after all.'
'If you're sick, you must go to a place where they will care
for you properly!'
'I'm not that sick!' I cried then. 'But if I might only lie a
little and get my strength ... Go on to work, and I'll let
myself out, and be long gone by the time you get home.
You may trust me in your house, you know. I shan't take
'There's little enough to take!' she cried. Then she threw her
end of the blanket at me, and put a hand to her brow. 'Oh,'
she said, 'how my head aches!' I looked at her, saying
nothing. At last she seemed to force herself into a kind of
calmness, and her voice grew stiff: 'You must do as you
said, I suppose, and let yourself out.' She caught up her coat
from the back of the door, and pulled it on. Then she took
up her satchel, reached into it, and brought out a piece of
paper and a coin. 'I've made you a list,' she said, 'of hostels
and houses you might try to find a bed in. The money' - it
was a half-crown - 'is from my brother. He asked me to tell
you good-bye and good luck.'
'He's a very kind man,' I said.
She shrugged, then buttoned up her coat, put her hat upon
her head, and thrust a pin through it. The coat and the hat
were the colour of mud. She said, There's a piece of bacon
still warm in the kitchen, which you may as well have for
your breakfast. Then - oh! then you really must go.'
'I promise I will!'
She nodded, and pulled at the door. There came a blast of
icy air from the street outside that made me shiver. Florence
shivered, too. The wind blew the brim of her hat away from
her brow, and she narrowed her hazel eyes against it, and
tightened her jaw.
I said, 'Miss Banner! I - might I come back, sometime, on a
visit? I should like - I should like to see your brother, and
thank him ...' I should like to see her, was what I meant. I
had come to make a friend of her. But I didn't know how to
say it.
She put a hand to her collar, and blinked into the wind.
'You must do as you like,' she said. Then she pulled the
door shut, leaving the parlour chill behind her, and I saw
her shadow on the lace at the window as she walked away.
After she had gone my leaden limbs seemed all at once, and
quite miraculously, to lighten. I rose, and braved again the
chilly privy; then I found the slice of bacon that had been
put aside for me, and took a piece of bread and a bunch of
cress, and ate my breakfast standing at the kitchen window,
gazing sightlessly at the unfamiliar view beyond it.
After that I rubbed my hands, and glanced about me, and
began to wonder what to do.
The kitchen, at least, was warm, for someone - Ralph,
presumably - had lit a small fire in the range, early on, and
the coals were only half consumed. It did seem a shame to
waste their lovely heat - and it could not hurt, I told myself,
to boil up some water for a bit of a wash. I opened a
cupboard door, looking for a pan to set upon the hob, and
came across a flat-iron; and seeing this I thought: They
wouldn't mind, surely, if I warmed that, too, and gave my
battered frock a little press ...
While I waited for these things to heat I wandered back into
the parlour, to separate the armchairs that had made my
bed, and set the blankets in a tidy pile. This done, I did
what I had been at first too bewildered, and then too sleepy,
to do the night before: I stood and had a proper look
The room, as I have said, was a very small one - far
smaller, certainly, than my old bedroom at Felicity Place and there were no gas-jets in it, only oil-lamps and
candlesticks. The furniture and decorations were, I thought,
a rather curious mixture. The walls were bare of paper, like
Diana's, but had been stained a patchy blue, like a
workshop's; for decoration they had only a couple of
almanacks - this year's and last year's - and two or three
dull-looking prints. There were two rugs upon the floor, one
ancient and threadbare, the other new and vivid and coarse
and rather rustic: the kind of rug I thought a shepherd,
suffering some disease of the eyes, might weave to while
away the endless gloomy hours of a Hebridean winter. The
mantelpiece was draped with a fluttering shawl, just as my
mother's had been, and upon it were the kind of ornaments I
had seen, as a child, in all my friends' and cousins' homes: a
dusty china shepherdess, her crook broken and inexpertly
mended; a piece of coral, beneath a dome of soot-spotted
glass; a glittering carriage-clock. Besides these, however,
there were other less predictable items on display: a creased
postcard, with a picture of working-men on it and the words
Dockers' Tanner or Dockers' Strike!; an oriental idol, rather
tarnished; a colour print of a man and woman in workinggear, their right hands clasped, their left hands supporting a
billowing banner: Strength Through Unity!
These things did not much interest me. I looked next at the
alcove beside the chimney-breast, where there was a set of
home-made shelves, fairly bursting with books and
magazines. This collection was also very mixed, and very
dusty. There was a good supply of shilling classics Longfellow, Dickens, that sort of thing - and one or two
cheap novels; but there were also a number of political
texts, and two or three volumes of what might be called
interesting verse. At least one of these -Walt Whitman's
Leaves of Grass -I had seen before on Diana's bookshelves
at Felicity Place. I had tried to read it once in an idle
moment: I had thought it terribly dull.
These shelves and their contents claimed my attention for a
minute or so; it was seized after that by two pictures which
hung from the rail above. The first of these was a family
portrait, and as stiff, as quaint and as marvellously
intriguing as other families' portraits always are. I looked
for Florence first, and found her - aged, perhaps, fifteen or
so, and very fresh and plump and earnest - seated between a
white-haired lady and a younger, darker girl, who had the
beginnings of a barmaid's flash good looks about her and
must, I thought, be a sister. Behind them stood three boys:
Ralph, minus his sailor's whiskers and wearing a very high
collar; a rather older brother who looked very much like
him; and an older brother again. There was no father.
The second portrait was a picture-postcard photograph: it
had been placed in the edge of the large picture's frame, but
its corner curled a little, showing a loop of faded writing on
the back. The subject of the portrait was a woman - a
heavy-browed woman with untidy dark hair: she seemed to
be sitting very squarely, and her gaze was rather grave. I
thought she might be the sister from the family group,
grown up; or she might be a friend of Florence's, or a
cousin, or - well, anybody. I leaned over to try to read the
handwriting that showed where the card curled over; but it
was hidden, and I didn't like to pluck it free - it wasn't that
intriguing. Then I caught the bubbling of the pan of water I
had set upon the stove, and hurried out to see to it.
I found a little tin bowl to wash in, and a block of green
kitchen soap; and then - since there was no towel, and I
didn't think it really polite to use the dish-cloth - I danced
about before the range until I was dry enough to climb back
into my dirty petticoats. I thought, with a little sigh, of
Diana's handsome bathroom - of that cabinet of unguents
that I had liked to sample for hours at a time. Even so, it
was marvellous to be clean again, and when I had combed
my hair and tended my face (I rubbed a bit of vinegar into
the bruise, and then a bit of flour); when I had thumped the
filth from my skirts and pressed them flat and put them on
again, I felt fit and warm and quite unreasonably gay. I
walked back into the parlour - it was a matter of some ten
steps or so - stood for a second there, then returned to the
kitchen. It was, I thought, a very pleasant house; as I had
already begun to notice, however, it was not a very clean
one. The rugs, I saw, all badly wanted beating. The
skirting-boards were scuffed and streaked with mud. Every
shelf and picture was as dusty as the sooty mantelpiece. If
this was my house, I thought, I would keep it smart as a
new pin.
Then I had a rather wonderful idea. I ran back into the
parlour and looked at the clock. Less than an hour had
passed since Florence's departure, and neither she nor
Ralph, I guessed, would be home much before five. That
gave me about eight whole hours - slightly less, I supposed,
if I wanted to be sure of finding myself a room in some
lodging-house or hostel while it was still light. How much
cleaning could you do in eight hours? I had no idea: it was
generally Alice who had helped Mother out at home; I had
hardly cleaned a thing before in my life; lately I had had
servants to do my cleaning for me. But I felt inspired, now,
to tidy this house - this house where I had been, albeit
briefly, so content. It would be a kind of parting gift, I
thought, for Ralph and Florence. I would be like a girl in a
fairy story, sweeping out the dwarves' cottage, or the
robbers' cave, while the dwarves or the robbers were at
I believe I laboured, that day, harder than I had ever
laboured over anything before; and I have wondered since,
thinking back to the industry of those hours, whether the
thing that I was really washing was not my own tarnished
soul. I began by lighting a bigger fire in the range, to heat
more water with. Then I found that I had used up all the
water in the house: I had to limp up and down Quilter Street
with two great buckets, looking for a stand-pipe; and when
I found one I also found a line of women at it, and had to
wait amongst them for half-an-hour, until the tap - which
ran no faster than a trickle, and sometimes only spluttered
and choked - was free. The women looked me up and
down, rather - they looked at my eye, and more especially
at my head, for I had placed a cap of Ralph's upon it in lieu
of my damp hat, and they could see where the hair was
shorn and razored beneath. But they were not at all
unfriendly. One or two, who had seen me leave the house,
asked me, 'Was I lodging with the Banners?' and I answered
that I was only passing through. They seemed happy
enough with that, as if people passed through, in this
district, very frequently.
When I had staggered home with the water, set it warming
on the stove, and wrapped myself in a great, crusty apron I
found hanging on the back of the pantry door, I began on
the parlour. First I wiped down all the dim and sooty things
with a wet cloth; then I washed the window, and then the
skirting-boards. The rugs I carried out into the yard: here I
hung them over the wash-line, and beat them until my arm
ached. As I did so, the back door of the neighbouring house
was pulled open and a woman, her sleeves rolled up like
mine and her own cheeks flushed, emerged to stand upon
the step. When she saw me she nodded, and I nodded back.
'A fine job you've taken on,' she said, 'cleaning the Banners'
place.' I smiled, glad of the rest, and wiped the sweat from
my brow and lip.
'Are they known for their dirt, then?'
'They are,' she said, 'in this street. They do too much in
other folks' houses, and not enough in their own. That's the
trouble." She spoke good-humouredly, however: she didn't
seem to mean that Ralph and Florence were busy-bodies. I
rubbed my aching shoulder. 'You'll be the new lodger, I
suppose?' she asked me then. I shook my head, and
repeated what I had told the other neighbours - that I was
only passing through. She seemed as unimpressed by that
as they had been. She watched me for a minute or two
while I resumed my beating; then she went indoors, without
another word.
When the rugs were beaten I swept the fireplace in the
parlour; then I found some blacklead in the pantry, and
began to dab at it with that. I had not leaded a grate since I
left home -though I had seen Zena blacking Diana's
fireplaces a hundred times, and remembered it as rather
easy labour. In fact, of course, it was tricky, filthy work,
and kept me busy for an hour, and left me feeling not a half
so blithe as I had been at first. Still, however, I didn't stop
to rest. I swept the floors, and then I scrubbed them; then I
washed the kitchen tiles, and then the range, and then the
kitchen window. I did not like to venture upstairs, but the
parlour and the kitchen, and even the privy and the yard, I
worked upon until they fairly gleamed; until every surface
that was meant to shine, shone; until every colour was
vivid, rather than dulled and paled by dust.
My final triumph was the front doorstep: this I swept and
washed, and finally scrubbed with a piece of hearthstone
until it was as white as any doorstep in the street - and my
arms, which had been black with lead, were streaked with
chalk from my fingernails to my elbows. I knelt for a few
moments when I had finished it, admiring the effect and
stretching my aching back, too warmed with work to be
bothered by the January breezes. Then I saw a figure
emerge from the house next door, and looked up to see a
little girl in a tattered frock and a pair of over-large boots
pigeon-stepping her way towards me with a spilling mug of
'Mother says you must be fairly fagged, and to give you
this,' she said. Then she ducked her head. 'But I'm to stay
with you while you drink it, to make sure we get the cup
The tea had been made murky with a bit of skim-milk, and
was terribly sweet. I drank it quickly, while the girl
shivered and stamped her feet. 'No school for you today?' I
asked her.
'Not today. It's wash-day, and Mother needs me at home to
keep the babies out from under her heels.' All the while she
talked to me she kept her eyes fixed on my shorn head. Her
own hair was fair, and - much as mine had used to dribbled down between her jutting shoulder-blades in a
long, untidy plait.
It was now about half-past three, and when I returned to
Florence's kitchen to wash my filthy hands and arms I
found the house had grown quite dark. I removed my apron,
and lit a lamp; then I took a few minutes to wander between
the rooms, gazing at the transformation I had effected. I
thought, like a child, How pleased they will be! How
pleased ... I was not quite so gay, however, as I had been
six hours before. Like the darkening day beyond the parlour
window, there was a gloomy knowledge pressing at the
edges of my own pleasure -the knowledge that I must go,
and find some shelter of my own. I picked up the list that
Florence had made for me. Her handwriting was very neat
but the ink had stained her fingers, and there was a smudge
where she had lain her tired hand upon the sheet.
I could not bear the idea of going just yet - of working my
way through the list of hostels, of being shown to a bed in
another chamber like the one I had slept in with Zena. I
would go in an hour; for now, I thought again,
determinedly, of how enchanted Ralph and Florence would
be, to come home to a tidy house - and then, with more
enthusiasm, I thought: And how much more pleased would
they be, to come home to their tidy house, and find their
supper bubbling on the stove! There was not much food in
the cupboards, so far as I could see; but there was, of
course, the half-crown that they had left for me ... I didn't
stop to think that I should keep it for my own needs. I
picked the coin up - it was just where Florence had placed
it, for I had lifted it only to wipe beneath it with a cloth,
then put it back again - and hobbled off down Quilter
Street, towards the stalls and barrows of the Hackney Road.
A half-hour later I was back. I had bought bread, meat and
vegetables and - purely on the grounds that it had looked so
handsome on the fruit-man's barrow - a pineapple. For a
year and a half I had eaten nothing but cutlets and salmis,
pates and crystallised fruits; but there was a dish that Mrs
Milne had used to make, consisting of mashed potato,
mashed cabbage, corned beef and onions - Gracie and I had
used to smack our lips at the sight of it placed before us on
the table. I thought it couldn't be very hard to make; and I
set about cooking it now, for Ralph and Florence.
I had set the potatoes and the cabbage on to boil, and got as
far as browning the onions, when I heard a knock at the
door. This made me jump, then grow a little flustered. I had
made myself so comfortable that I felt, instinctively, that I
should answer it; but should I, really? Was there not a point
at which helpfulness, if persevered with, became
impertinence? I looked down at the pan of onions, my
rolled-up sleeves. Had I perhaps crossed over that point,
While I wondered, the knock came again; and this time I
didn't hesitate, but went straight to the door and opened it.
Beyond it was a girl - a rather handsome girl, with dark hair
showing beneath a velvet tam-o'-shanter. When she saw me
she said, 'Oh! Is Florrie not at home, then?' and looked
quickly at my arms, my dress, my eye, and then my hair.
I said, 'Miss Banner isn't here, no. I'm on my own.' I
sniffed, and thought I caught the smell of burning onions.
'Look here,' I went on, 'I'm doing a bit of frying. Do you
mind . . . ?' I ran back to the kitchen to rescue my dish. To
my surprise I heard the thud of the front door, and found
that the girl had followed me. When I looked round she was
unbuttoning her coat, and gazing about her in wonder.
'My God,' she said - her voice had a bit of breeding to it, but
she was not at all proud. 'I called because I saw the step,
and thought Florrie must have had some sort of fit. Now I
see she's either lost her head entirely, or had the fairies in.'
I said, 'I was me that did it all. . .'
She laughed, showing her teeth. 'Then you, I suppose, must
be the fairy king himself. Or is it, the fairy queen? I cannot
tell if your hair is at odds with your costume, or the other
way around. If that' - she laughed again - 'means anything.'
I didn't know what it might mean. I said only, rather primly,
that I was waiting for my hair to grow; and she answered,
'Ah', and her smile grew a little smaller. Then she said, in a
puzzled sort of way: 'And you're staying with Florrie and
Ralph, are you?'
'They let me sleep last night in the parlour, as a favour; but
today I have to move on. In fact - what time have you?' She
showed me her watch: a quarter to five, and much later than
I had expected. 'I really must go very soon.' I took the pan
off the stove - the onions had burned a little browner than I
wanted - and began to look about me for a bowl.
'Oh,' she said, waving her hand at my haste, 'have a cup of
tea with me, at least.' She put some water on to boil, and I
began jabbing at the potatoes with a fork. The dish, as I
assembled it, did not look quite like the meal that Mrs
Milne had used to make; and when I tasted it, it was not so
savoury. I set it on the side, and frowned at it. The girl
handed me a cup. Then she leaned against a cupboard, quite
at her ease, and sipped at her own tea, and then yawned.
'What a day I have had!' she said. 'Do I stink like a rat? I've
been all afternoon down a drain-pipe.'
'Down a drain-pipe?'
'Down a drain-pipe. I'm an assistant at a sanitary
inspector's. You may not pull such a face; it was quite a
triumph, I tell you, my getting the position at all. They
think women too delicate for that sort of work.'
'I think I would rather be delicate,' I said, 'than do it.'
'Oh, but it's marvellous work! It's only now and then I have
to peer into sewers, as I did today. Mostly I measure, and
talk to workers, and see if they are too hot or too cold, have
enough air to breathe, enough lavatories. I have a
government order, and do you know what that means? It
means I can demand to see an office or a workshop, and if
it's not right, I can demand that it be put right. I can have
buildings closed, buildings improved ...' She waved her
hands. 'Foremen hate me. Greedy masters from Bow to
Richmond absolutely loathe the sight of me. I wouldn't
swap my work for anything!' I smiled at the enthusiasm in
her voice; she might be a sanitary inspector, but she was
also, I could tell, something of an actress. Now she took
another mouthful of tea. 'So,' she said, when she had
swallowed it, 'how long have you been a friend of
'Well, friend isn't quite the word for it, really ..."
'You don't know her terribly well?'
'Not at all.'
That's a shame,' she said, shaking her head. 'She's not been
herself, these past few months. Not been herself at all..."
She would have gone on, I think, if there had not, at that
moment, come the sound of the front door opening, and
then of feet upon the parlour floor.
'Oh hell!' I said. I put my cup down, gazed wildly about me
for a second, then ran past the girl to the pantry door. I
didn't stop to think; I didn't say a word to her or even look
at her. I simply hopped inside the little cupboard, and
pulled the door shut behind me. Then I put my ear to it, and
'Is there someone out there?' It was Florence's voice. I heard
her stepping, cautiously, into the kitchen. Then she must
have seen her Mend. 'Annie, oh, it's you! Thank goodness.
For a moment I thought - what's the matter?'
Tm not sure.'
'Why do you look so queer? What's going on? What has
happened to the step at the front of the house? And what's
this mess on the stove?'
'Florrie -'
'I think I might as well tell you; indeed, I really think I'm
quite obliged to tell you ..." 'What? You're frightening me.'
'There's a girl in your pantry.'
There was a silence then, during which I swiftly surveyed
my options. They were, I found, very few; so I decided on
the noblest. I took hold of the handle of the pantry door,
and slowly pushed it open. Florence saw me, and twitched.
'I was just about to leave,' I said. 'I swear it.' I looked at the
girl called Annie, who nodded. 'She was,' she said. 'She
Florence gazed at me. I stepped out of the pantry and edged
past her, into the parlour. She frowned.
'What on earth have you been doing?' she asked, as I
searched for my hat. 'Why does everything look so strange?'
She picked up a box of matches, and lit the two oil-lamps
and then a couple of candles. The light was taken up by a
thousand polished surfaces, and she started. 'You have
cleaned the house!'
'Only the downstairs rooms. And the yard. And the front
step,’ I said, in increasing tones of wretchedness. 'And I
made you supper.'
She gaped at me. 'Why!'
'Your house was dirty. The woman next door said you were
famous for it..."
'You met the woman next door?'
'She gave me some tea.'
'I leave you in my home for one day and you quite
transform it. You get yourself in with my neighbours.
You're thick, I suppose, with my best friend. And what has
she been telling you?'
'I haven't told her anything, I'm sure!' called Annie from the
I pulled at a thread that had come loose at my cuff. 'I
thought you would be pleased,' I said quietly, 'to have a tidy
house. I thought -' I had thought that it would make her like
me. In Diana's world, it would have. It, or something
'I liked my house the way it was,' she said.
'I don't believe you,' I replied; and then, when she hesitated,
I said - what, I suppose, I had been planning to say to her,
all along - 'Let me stay, Miss Banner! Oh, please let me
She gave me a bewildered look. 'Miss Astley, I cannot!'
'I could sleep in here, like I did last night. I could clean and
cook, like I did today. I could do your washing.' I was
growing more rash and desperate as I spoke. 'Oh, how I
longed to do those things, when I was in the house in St
John's Wood! But that devil I lived with said I must let the
servants do it - that it would spoil my hands. But if I stayed
here - well, I could look after your little boy while you are
at work, I wouldn't give him laudanum when he cried!'
Now Florence's eyes were wider than ever. 'Clean and do
my washing? Look after Cyril? I'm sure I couldn't let you
do all those things!'
'Why not? I met fifty women in your street today, all doing
exactly those things! It's natural, ain't it? If I was your wife
- or Ralph's wife, I mean -I should certainly do them then.'
Now she folded her arms. 'In this house, Miss Astley, that's
possibly the very worst argument you could have hit upon.'
As she spoke, however, the front door opened and Ralph
appeared. He had an evening paper under one arm, and
Cyril under the other.
'My word,' he said, 'look at the shine on this step! I am
frightened to tread on it.' He saw me and smiled - 'Hallo,
still here?' - then he glanced about the room. 'And look at
all this! I haven't come into the wrong parlour, have I?'
Florence stepped across to him to take the baby, then
propelled him out towards the kitchen. Here I heard him
exclaiming very warmly - first over Annie, and then over
the beef and potatoes, and finally over the pineapple.
Florence struggled with Cyril for a moment: he was
squirming and fractious and about to cry. I went to her, and
- with terrible boldness, for the last baby I had held had
been my cousin's child, four years before: and he had
screamed in my face - I said, 'Give him to me, babies love
me.' She handed him over and, through some extraordinary
miracle - perhaps I was holding him so inexpertly, the grip
quite stunned him - he fell against my shoulder, and sighed,
and grew calm.
I might have thought, if I had had more experience in the
matter, that the sight of her foster-son content and still in
another girl's arms would be the last thing to convince a
mother to allow that girl to stay in her own house; and yet,
when I looked at Florence again I saw that her eyes were
upon me, and her expression - as it had been once, last
night - was strange and almost sad, but also desperately
tender. One curl had worked its way out of her knot of hair,
and hung, rather limply, over her brow. When she raised a
hand to brush it from her eye, it seemed to me that the
finger came away a little damp at the tip.
I thought: Blimey, I was wasted in male impersonation, I
should have been in melodrama. I bit my lip, and gave a
gulp. 'Good-bye, Cyril,' I said, in a voice that shook a little.
'I must put on my damp bonnet now, and head off into the
darkening night, and find some bench to sleep on ..."
But this, after all, proved too much. Florence sniffed, and
her face grew stern again.
'All right,' she said. 'You may stay - for a week. And if the
week works out, we shall try it for a month: you may have a
share of the family salary, I suppose, for the sake of
watching Cyril and keeping house. But if it does not work,
then you must promise me, Miss Astley, that you will go.'
I promised it. Then I hitched the baby a little higher at my
shoulder, and Florence turned away. I didn't look to see
what her expression was, now. I only smiled; and then I put
my lips to Cyril's head - he smelt rather sour - and kissed
How thankful I was then, that I had lied about Diana! What
did it matter, that I was not all that I pretended? I had been
a regular girl once; I could be regular again - being regular,
indeed, might prove a kind of holiday. I thought back over
my recent history, and gave a shudder; and then I glanced at
Florence, and was glad - as I had been glad once before -
that she was rather plain, and rather ordinary. She had taken
out a handkerchief, and was wiping at her nose; now she
was calling out to Ralph, to put the kettle on the stove. My
lusts had been quick, and driven me to desperate pleasures:
but she, I knew, would never raise them. My too-tender
heart had once grown hard, and had lately grown harder but there was no chance of it softening, I thought, at Quilter
Chapter 17
One of the ladies who had come dressed as Marie
Antoinette to Diana's terrible party had come clad, not as a
queen, but as a shepherdess, with a crook: I had heard her
tell another guest (who had mistaken her for Bo Peep, from
the nursery poem) about how Marie Antoinette had had a
little cottage built in the garden of her palace, and had
thought it droll to play in it, with all of her friends dressed
up as dairymaids and yokels. I remembered that story, in
the first few weeks of my time at Quilter Street, a little
bitterly. I think I had felt rather like Marie Antoinette, the
day that I put on an apron and cleaned Florence's house for
her and cooked her supper; I think I even felt like her, the
second day I did it. By the third day, however - the third
day of waiting in the street for the stand-pipe to spit out its
bit of cloudy water, of black-leading the fireplaces and the
stove, of whitening the step, of scouring out the privy - I
was ready to hang up my crook and return to my palace.
But the palace doors, of course, had been closed on me; I
must work, now, in earnest. And I must work, too, with a
baby squirming on my arm - or rolling about the floor,
cracking his head against the furniture - or, more usually,
shrieking out, from his crib upstairs, for milk and breadand-butter. For'} all my promises to Florence, if there had
been gin in the house,'
I think I would have given it to him - or else, I might have
swallowed some of it myself, to make the chores a little
gayer. But there was no gin; and Cyril stayed lively, and the
chores remained hard. And I could not complain, not even
to myself: for I knew that, dreary as they were, they were
not so dreary as the habits I should have to learn if I left
Bethnal Green to try my luck, all friendless and in winter,
upon the streets.
So, I did not complain; but I did think, often, of Felicity
Place. I thought of how quiet and how handsome that
square was; of how grand Diana's villa was, how pleasant
its chambers, how light, how warm, how perfumed, how
polished -how different, in short, to Florence's house, which
was set in one of the poorest, noisiest quarters of the city;
had one dark room to do duty as bed-chamber, diningroom, library and parlour; had windows that rattled and
chimneys that smoked, and a door that was continually
opening, shutting, or being banged by a fist. The whole
street, it seemed to me, might as well be made of India
rubber - there was such a passage of shouts and laughter
and people and smells and dogs, from one house to its
neighbours. I should not have minded it -after all, I had
grown up in a street that was similar, in a house where
cousins thundered up and down the stairs, and the parlour
might be full, on any night of the week, with people
drinking beer and playing cards and sometimes quarrelling.
But I had lost the habit of enduring it; and now it only made
me weary.
Then again, there were so many people who came calling.
There was, for example, Florence's family: a brother and his
wife and children; a sister, Janet. The brother was the oldest
of the sons in the family portrait (the middle one was gone
to Canada); he worked as a butcher, and sometimes brought
us meat; but he was rather boastful - he had moved to a
house in Epping, and thought Ralph a fool for remaining in
Quilter Street, where the family had all grown up. I didn't
like him much. Janet, however, who called oftener, I took
to at once. She was eighteen or nineteen, big-boned and
handsome; a born barmaid I had thought her when studying
her photograph - so I was rather tickled to learn that she
worked as a tapstress in a City public-house, lodging with
the family who ran it, in their rooms above the bar.
Florence fretted over her like anything: their mother had
died while the sisters were still quite young (their father had
died many years before that), Florence had had all the
raising of the girl to do herself and, like older sisters
everywhere, was sure that Janet would be led astray by the
first young man who got his hands on her. 'She will marry
without giving it a second's thought,' she said wearily to
me, when Janet paid her first visit after I moved in. 'She'll
be dragged down having babies all her life, and her good
looks will be spoiled, and she'll die worn out at forty-three,
like our own mother did.' When Janet came for supper, she
stayed the night; then she would sleep up in Florence's bed,
and I'd hear their murmurs and their laughter as I lay in the
parlour below - the sound made me terribly restless. But
Janet herself seemed marvellously unsurprised to see me
dishing up the herrings at the breakfast-table, or putting her
brother's linen, on a wash-day, through the mangle. 'All
right, Nancy,' she would say - she called me 'Nancy' from
the start. The first time we met I still had the bruise at my
eye, and when she saw it, she whistled. She said, 'I bet it
was a girl done that - wasn't it? A girl always goes for the
yes, every time. A bloke goes for the teeth.'
When the house wasn't being shivered to its foundations by
the thud of Janet's footsteps on the stairs, it was trembling
to the arguments and the laughter of Florence's girl-friends,
who came by regularly to bring books and pamphlets and
bits of| gossip, and to take tea. I thought them a very quaint
breed,; these girls. They all worked; but, like Annie Page,
the sanitary! inspector, not one of them had a dull,
straightforward kind r* job - making felt hats, or dressing
feathers, or serving in shop. Instead they all worked for
charities or in homes: they a had lists of cripples, or
immigrants, or orphaned girls, whom was their continual
ambition to set up in jobs, houses, ani friendly societies.
Every story they told began the same: 'I had a girl come
into the office today ..."
'I had a girl come into the office today, fresh from gaol, and
her mother has taken her baby and disappeared with it..."
'I had a poor woman come into the office today: she was
brought over from India as a maid, and now the family
won't pay her passage back ..."
'There was a woman come in today: she has been ruined by
a gent, and the gent has given her such a thump she -' This
particular story, however, never got finished: the girl who
was telling it caught sight of me, perched on an armchair at
Florence's elbow; then she flushed pink, and put her cup to
her lips, and turned the subject. They had all had my history
-my pretend history - from Florence herself. When they
weren't blushing into their tea-cups over it, they were taking
me aside to ask me, privately, Was I quite well now? and to
recommend some man who would prove helpful if I
thought to take my case to court, or else some vegetable
treatment that would ease the bruising at my cheek ...
All of Ralph and Florence's circle, in fact, were quite sickeningly kind and earnest and conscientious over matters
like this. As I could not help but find out very early on, the
Banners were big in the local labour movement - they
always had some desperate project on hand, some plan to
get a parliamentary act passed or opposed; the parlour, as a
consequence, was always full of people holding emergency
meetings or dreary debates. Ralph was a cutter in a silk
factory, and secretary of the silk workers' union. Florence as well as working at the Stratford girls' home, Freemantle
House - volunteered for a thing called the Women's
Cooperative Guild: it was Guild work (not lists, as I had
imagined, of friendless girls) which had kept her up so late
on the night of my arrival at her home - and which, indeed,
kept her up late on many subsequent nights, balancing
budgets and writing letters. In those early days, I would
occasionally glance at the pages she worked on; but
whatever I saw, made me frown. 'What does it mean,
cooperative!' I asked her once. It was not a word I had ever
heard used at Felicity
And yet, there were moments at Quilter Street, when I
found myself handing out cups of tea, rolling cigarettes,
nursing babies while other people argued and laughed,
when I thought I might as well still be in Diana's drawingroom, dressed in a tunic. There, no one had ever asked me
anything, because they never thought I might have had an
opinion worth soliciting; but at least they had liked to look
at me. At Florence's house, no one looked at me at all - and
what was worse, they all supposed I must be quite as good
and energetic as themselves. I lived in a continual panic,
therefore, that I would accidentally disenchant them - that
someone would ask me my opinion on the SDF or the ILP,
and my reply would make it clear that, not only had I
confused the SDF with the WLF, the ILP with the WTUL,
but I had absolutely no idea, and never had had, what the
initials stood for anyway. When I shyly confessed one time,
about six weeks after I moved in there, that I scarcely knew
the difference between a Tory and a Liberal, they took it as
a kind of clever joke. 'You are so right, Miss Astley!' a man
had answered. 'There is no difference at all, and if only
everyone were as clear-sighted as yourself, our task would
be an easier one.' I smiled, and said no more. Then I
collected the cups, and took Cyril into the kitchen with me;
and while I waited for the kettle to boil I sang him an old
song from the music hall, which made him kick his legs and
gurgle. Then Florence appeared. 'What a pretty song,' she
said absently. She was rubbing her eyes. 'Ralph and I are
going out - you won't mind watching Cyril, will you? There
is a family up the road - they are having the bailiffs in. I
said we would go, in case the men get rough . . .' There was
always something like this - always some neighbour in
trouble, and needing money, or help, or a letter writing or a
visit to the police; and it was always Ralph and Florence
that they came to -I had not been with them a week before I
saw Ralph leave his supper and run along the street in his
shirt-sleeves, to give some word of comfort and a couple of
coins to some man who had lost his job. I thought them
mad to do it. We had been kind enough to our neighbours,
back in Whitstable; but the kindness had had limits to it Mother had never had time for feckless wives, or idlers, or
drunkards. Florence and Ralph, however, helped
everybody, even - or, it seemed to me, especially - those
layabout fathers, those slatternly mothers, whom all the rest
of Bethnal Green had taken against. Now, hearing
Florence's plans to visit the family that had the bailiffs
coming, I grew sour. 'You're a regular pair of saints, you
two,' I said, filling a bowl with soapy water. 'You never
have a minute for yourselves. You have a pretty house now that I am here to make it so - and not one moment to
enjoy it. You earn a decent wage, between you, and yet you
give it all away!'
'If I wanted to close my doors to my neighbours and gaze
all night at my pretty walls,' she replied, still passing a hand
across her bleary features, 'I would move to Hampstead! I
have lived in this house all my life; there's not a family in
this street who didn't help Mother out, at one time or
another, when we were kids and things were rather hard.
You're right: we do draw a fair wage between us, Ralph and
me; but do you think I could enjoy my thirty shillings,
knowing that Mrs Monks next door must live, with all her
girls, on ten? That Mrs Kenny across the street, whose
husband is sick, must make do with the three shillings she
gets making paper flowers, sitting up all night and squinting
at the wretched things until she is gone half-blind
'All right,' I said. She made speeches like this often sounding always, I thought, like a Daughter of the People in
some sentimental novel of East End life: Maria Jex had
liked to read such novels, and Diana had liked to laugh at
her. I didn't say this to Florence, however. I didn't say
anything at all. But when she and Ralph and their union
friends had gone, I sat down in an armchair in the parlour,
rather heavily. The truth was, I hated their charity; I hated
their good works, their missions, their orphan proteges. I
hated them, because I knew that I was one of them. I had
thought that Florence had let me into her house through
some extraordinary favour to myself; but what kind of a
compliment was it, when she and her brother would
regularly take in any old josser that happened to be
staggering about the street, down on his luck, and give him
supper? It was not that they were careless with me. Ralph,
for example, I knew to be the gentlest man that I should
ever meet: no one, not even the most hardened Sapphist in
the city, could have lived with Ralph without loving him a
little; and I - who liked to think of myself as no very soft
torn - learned early on to love him a great deal. Florence,
too, was pleasant enough to me, in her own tired, distracted
sort of way. But though she ate the suppers I cooked;
though she handed me Cyril to wash and dress and cradle;
and though, when a month had passed, she had agreed that I
might stay if I still cared to, and sent Ralph into the attic to
bring me down a little truckle-bed, which she said would be
cosier, in the parlour, than the two armchairs -though she
did all these things, she never did them as if she really did
them for me. She did them because the suppers and the
baby-minding gave her more hours to devote to her other
causes. She had given me work, as a lady might give work
to a shiftless girl, come fresh from prison.
I should not have been myself, if her indifference had not
rather piqued me. I had spent eighteen months at Felicity
Place, shaping my behaviour to the desires of lustful ladies
until I was as skilled and as subtle at it as a glove-maker: I
could not throw those skills over now, just because I also
learned the blacking of a grate. On Florence, however, the
skills proved useless. 'She really can't be a torn,' I would
say to myself - for, if she never flirted with me, then there
were plenty of other girls who passed through our parlour,
and I never saw her flirt with a single one of them, not
once. But then, I never saw her flirting with a fellow, either.
At last, I supposed she was too good to fall in love with
And, after all, I had not come to Quilter Street to flirt; I had
come to be ordinary. And knowing there was no one's eye
to charm or set smarting only made me more ordinary still.
My hair - which had lost its military sharpness after a week
or two, anyway -I let grow; I even began to curl it at the
ends. My pinching boots became less stiff, the more I
walked in them; but I traded them in, at a second-hand
clothes stall, for a pair of shoes with bows on. I did the
same with my bonnet and my rusty frock - exchanged them,
for a hat with a wired flower and a dress with ribbon at the
neck. 'Now, there's a pretty frock!' said Ralph to me, when I
put it on for the first time; but Ralph would have told me I
looked handsome wrapped in a piece of brown paper, if he
thought it would make me smile. The truth was, I had
looked awful ever since leaving St John's Wood; and now,
in a flowery frock, I only looked extraordinarily awful. The
clothes I had bought, they were the kind I'd used to wear in
Whitstable and with Kitty; and I seemed to remember that I
had been known then as a handsome enough girl. But it was
as if wearing gentlemen's suits had magically unfitted me
for girlishness, for ever - as if my jaw had grown firmer,
my brows heavier, my hips slimmer and my hands extra
large, to match the clothes Diana had put me in. The bruise
at my eye faded quickly enough, but the brawl with Dickie's
book had left me with a scar at my cheek - I have it there
still; and this, combined with the new firmness at my
shoulders and thighs, got from carrying buckets and
whitening steps, gave me something of the air of a rough.
When I washed in the mornings in a bowl in the kitchen,
and caught sight of myself, from a certain angle, reflected
in the darkened window, I looked like a youth in the backroom of some boys' club, rinsing himself down after a
boxing match. How Diana would have admired me! At
Quilter Street, however, as I have said, there was no one to
gasp. By the time Ralph and Florence came down for their
breakfasts, I would have my frock upon me and my hair in
a curl; and then, more often than not, Florence would only
gulp at her tea and say she had no time to eat, she was
calling at the Guild on her way to work. Ralph would help
himself to the red herrings left on her plate - 'My word,
Cyril, but don't these look good!' - and she would leave,
without a glance at me, wrapping a muffler about her throat
like a woman of ninety.
However much I thought about her - and I spent many
hours at it: for there is not much to occupy the brain in
housework, and I might as well puzzle over her, as over
anything -I could not figure her out, at all. The Florence I
had met first, the Green Street Florence, had been gay; she
had had hair that twisted from her head like bed-springs,
she had worn skirts as bright as mustard, she had laughed
and shown her teeth. Florence Banner of Bethnal Green,
however, was only grave, and weary. Her hair was limp,
and her dresses were dark, or the colour of rust or dust or
ashes; and when she smiled, you found you were surprised
by it, and flinched.
For her temper, I discovered, was fickle. She was kind as an
angel to the undeserving poor of Bethnal Green; but at
home she was sometimes depressed, and very often cross - I
would see her brother and her friends tiptoeing about her
chair, so as not to rouse her: I thought their patience quite
astonishing. She might be gay as you like, for days at a
time; but then she would come home from a walk, or wake
one morning, as if from troubled dreams, dispirited.
Strangest of all, to my mind, was her behaviour towards
Cyril: for though I knew she loved him as her own, she
would sometimes seem to turn her eyes from him, or push
his grasping hands away, as if she hated him; then at other
times she would seize him and cover him with kisses until
he squealed. I had been at Quilter Street for several months
when the talk, one evening, turned to birthdays; and I
realised with a little start of surprise that Cyril's must have
passed and gone uncelebrated. When I asked Ralph about it
he answered that, just as I'd thought, it had passed in July,
but they had not thought it worthwhile to mark it. I said,
laughing, 'Oh, do socialists not keep birthdays, then?' and
he had smiled; Florence, however, had risen without a
word, and left the room. I wondered again about what story
there might be behind the baby; but Florence offered no
clue to it, and I did not pry. I thought, if I did, that it might
prompt her to ask me again about the gent who had
supposedly kept me in luxury, then blacked my eye: she
had never referred to him after that first night. I was glad
she hadn't. She was so good and honest, after all -I should
have hated to have had to lie to her.
Indeed, I should have hated to have had to abuse her, in any
way. When she worked so hard and grew so weary, it made
me pace about the room and wring my hands, and want to
shake her. It was not her job at the girls' home that so
exhausted her, it was the endless guild and union work - the
piles of lists and ledgers she would place upon the suppertable, when the supper-things had been cleared off it, and
squint at, all night long, until her eyes were red, and creased
as currants. Sometimes, since I had nothing better to do, I
would take a chair and sit beside her, and make her share
the chores with me: she gave me envelopes to address, or
other little harmless tasks I could not muddle. When, in
spring, the Guild set up a local seamstresses' union, and
Florence began visiting the home-workers of Bethnal Green
- all the poor women who worked long hours, alone, in
squalid rooms, for wretched pay -I went with her. The
scenes we saw were very miserable, and the women were
pleased to be visited, and the Guild was grateful; but it was
for Florence's sake I really went. I couldn't bear for her to
do the dreary task, and walk the East End streets, at night,
And then — as I have said, a housekeeper will look for any
little thing to liven her day — I began to labour for her, in
the kitchen. She was thin, and the thinness looked wrong on
her: the sight of the shadows at her cheeks made me feel
sad. So, while the Women's Cooperative Guild made it their
cause to unionise the home-workers of East London, I made
it mine to fatten up Florence, with breakfasts and lunches,
with sandwich teas, with dinners and suppers and biscuits
and milk. I had not much success with this, to start with for, though I took to haunting the meat stalls of the
Whitechapel Market, buying faggots and sausages, rabbits
and tripe, and bagfuls of those scraps of flesh we had used
to call, in Whitstable, 'bits and ears', I was really rather an
indifferent cook, and was as liable to burn the meat, or
leave it bloody, as make it savoury; Florence and Ralph did
not notice, I think, because they were used to nothing
better. But then, one day at the end of August, I saw that the
oyster season had started up, and I bought a barrel of
natives and an oyster-knife; and as I put the blade to the
hinge, it was as if I turned a key which unlocked all my
mother's oyster-parlour recipes, and sent them flooding to
my finger-ends. I dished up an oyster-pie - and Florence put
aside the paper she was writing on, to eat it, then picked at
the crust that was left in the bowl, with her fork. The next
night I served oyster-fritters, the next night oyster-soup. I
made grilled oysters, and pickled oysters; and oysters rolled
in four and stewed in cream.
When I passed a plate of this last dish to Florence, she
smiled; and when she had tasted it, she sighed. She took a
piece of bread-and-butter, and folded it to mop the sauce
with; and the bread left cream upon her lips, that she licked
at with her tongue, then wiped with her fingers. I
remembered another time, in another parlour, when I had
served another girl an oyster-supper, and accidentally
wooed her; and as I was thinking of this, Florence lifted a
spoonful offish, and sighed again.
'Oh,' she said, 'I really think, that if there were one dish, and
one dish only, that had to be served in paradise, that dish
would be oysters - don't you think so, Nance?'
She had never called me 'Nance' before; and I had never, in
all the months that I had lived with her then, known her say
anything so fanciful. I laughed to hear it; and then so did
her brother, and so did she.
'I think it might be oysters," I said.
'It would be marzipan, in my paradise,' said Ralph: he had a
very sweet tooth.
'And there would have,' I said then, 'to be a cigarette beside
the dish, otherwise it would be hardly worth eating.'
'That's true. And my supper-table would be set upon a hill,
but overlooking a town - there would not be a chimney in
it; every house would be lit and warmed by electricity.'
'Oh, Ralph!' I said; 'but only think how dull it would be, to
be able to see into all the corners! There wouldn't be
electric lights, or even houses, in my paradise. There would
be -' Pigmy ponies and fairies on a wire, was what I wanted
to say, thinking back to my nights at the Brit; but I was not
up to explaining it.
And while I hesitated, Florence said: 'So, are we all to have
a separate paradise?'
Ralph shook his head. 'Well, you, of course, would be in
mine,' he said. 'And Cyril.'
'And Mrs Besant, I suppose.' She took another spoonful of
her supper, then turned to me: 'And who would be in yours
then, Nancy?'
She smiled, and I had been smiling; but even as she asked
her question, I felt my smile begin to waver. I gazed at my
hands where they lay upon the table: they had grown white
as lilies at Felicity Place, but now they were red at the
knuckles and split at the nails, and scented with soda; and
the cuffs above them had frills, that had got spotted with
grease - I hadn't learned the trick of pushing ladies' sleeves
back, there seemed never enough material to roll. Now I
twitched at one of these cuffs, and bit my lip. The fact was I
didn't know who would be beside me in my paradise. The
fact was, there was no one who would want to have me in
theirs . . .
I looked again at Florence. 'Well, you and Ralph,' I said at
last, 'I imagine will be in everybody's paradise, instructing
them in how to run it.'
Ralph laughed. Florence tilted her head, and smiled a sad
smile of her own. Then, after a moment, she blinked and
caught my gaze. 'And you, of course,' she said, 'will have to
be in mine . . .'
'Really, Florence?'
'Of course - else, who will stew my oysters?'
I had had better compliments paid me - but not recently. I
found myself pinking at her words, and dipped my head.
When I looked at her again, she was gazing over into the
corner of the room. I turned, to see what it was she was
looking at: it was the family portrait, and I guessed she
must be thinking of her mother. But in the corner of the
frame, of course, there was the smaller picture, of the
grave-looking woman with the very heavy brows. I had
never learned who she was, after all. Now I said to Ralph:
'Who is that girl, in the little photo? She don't half need a
He looked at me, but did not answer. It was Florence who
spoke. 'That's Eleanor Marx,' she said, with a kind of quiver
to her voice.
'Eleanor Marks? Have I met her? Is she that cousin of
yours, who works at the poulterers?'
She gazed at me then as if I had not asked the question, but
barked it. Ralph put down his fork. 'Eleanor Marx,' he said,
'is a writer and a speaker and a very great socialist. . .'
I blushed: this was worse than asking what cooperative
meant. But when Ralph saw my cheeks, he looked kind:
'You mustn't mind it. Why should you know? I'm sure, you
might mention a dozen writers you have read, and Flo and I
would not know one of them.'
That true,' I said, very grateful to him; but though I had read
proper books at Diana's, I could think, at that moment, only
of the improper ones - and they all had the same author:
So I said nothing, and we finished our supper in silence.
And when I looked at Florence again, her eyes were turned
away from me and seemed rather dark. I thought then that,
after all, she would never really want a girl like me in
paradise with her, not even to stew the oysters for her tea;
and the thought, just then, seemed a dreary one.
But I was quite wrong about her. Whether I were in her
paradise or not, she wouldn't have noticed; and it was not
her mother she hoped to see there, nor even Eleanor Marx,
nor even Karl Marx. It was another person altogether that
she had in mind - but it was not until a few weeks later, one
evening in the autumn of that year, that I found out who.
I had begun, as I have said, to accompany Florence on her
visits for the Guild, and on this night I found myself in the
home of a seamstress at Mile End. It was a terribly poor
home: there was no furniture, hardly, in the woman's
rooms, only a couple of mattresses, a threadbare rug, and
one rickety table and chair. In the chamber that passed for a
parlour, a tea-chest was upturned and had the remains of a
sad little supper on it: a crust of bread, a bit of dripping in a
jar, and a cup half-full of bluish milk. The dinner-table was
all covered with the paraphernalia of the woman's trade with folded garments and tissue wrappers, with pins and
cotton reels and needles. The needles, she said, were always
dropping on the floor, and the children were always
stepping on them; her baby had recently put a pin in his
mouth, and the pin had stuck in his palate and almost
choked him.
I listened to her story, and then watched while Florence
spoke to her about the Women's Guild, and about the
seamstresses' union it had established. Would she come to a
meeting? Florence asked. The woman shook her head, and
said she didn't have the time; that she had no one to mind
the children; that she was frightened that the masters at the
outfitters for whom she worked would hear about it, and
stop her shillings.
'Besides that, miss,' she said at last, 'my husband wouldn't
care for me to go. Not but what he ain't a union man
himself; but he don't think much of women having a say in
all that stuff. He says there ain't the need for it.'
'But what do you think, Mrs Fryer? Don't you think the
women's union a good thing? Wouldn't you like to see
things changed - see the masters made to pay you more, and
work you kinder?' Mrs Fryer rubbed her eyes.
They would drop me, miss, that's all, and find a gal to do it
cheaper. There are plenty of 'em - plenty gals what envy me
even my poor few shillings . . .'
The discussion went on, until at last the woman grew
fidgety, and said she thanked us, but couldn't spare the time
to hear us any longer. Florence shrugged. Think on it a bit,
won't you? I've told you when the meeting is. Bring your
babies if you like - we'll find someone to take care of 'em
for an hour or two.' We rose; I looked again at the table, at
the pile of reels and garments. There was a waistcoat, a set
of handkerchiefs, some gentlemen's linen -I found myself
drifting towards it all, with fingers that itched to pick the
garments up and stroke them. I caught the woman's eye,
and nodded at the table-top.
I said, 'What is it you do exactly, Mrs Fryer? Some of these
look very fine.'
'I'm an embroid'rer, miss,' she answered. 'I does the fancy
letters.' She lifted a shirt, and showed me its pocket: there
was a flowery monogram upon it, sewn very neatly in ivory
silk. 'It looks a bit queer, don't it,' she went on sadly, 'seeing
all these scraps of handsomeness in this poor room . . .'
'It does,' I said - but I could hardly get the words out. The
pretty monogram had reminded me suddenly of Felicity
Place, and all the lovely suits that I had worn there. I saw
again those tailored jackets and waistcoats and shirts, those
tiny, extravagant N.K.s that I had thought so thrilling. I had
not known then that they were sewn in rooms like this, by
women as sad as Mrs Fryer; but if I had, would I have
cared? I knew that I would not, and felt now horribly
uncomfortable and ashamed. Florence had stepped to the
door, and stood there, waiting for me; Mrs Fryer had bent to
pick up her youngest child, who had begun to cry. I reached
into the pocket of my coat. There was a shilling there, and a
penny, left over from a marketing trip: I took them out and
placed them on the table amongst the fancy shirts and
hankies, slyly as a thief.
Mrs Fryer, however, saw, and shook her head.
'Oh, now, miss . . .' she said.
'For the baby.' I felt more self-conscious and ill than ever.
'Just for the little one. Please.' The woman ducked her head,
and murmured her thanks; and I did not look at her, or
Florence, until we were both of us out on the street again,
and the dismal room was far behind.
'That was kind of you,' said Florence at last. It wasn't kind
at all; I felt as if I had slapped the woman, not given her a
gift. But I didn't know how to tell any of this to Florence.
'You shouldn't have done it, of course,' she was saying.
'Now she will think the Guild is made of women who are
better than her, not women just like herself, trying to help
'You're not much like her,' I said - a little stung, despite
myself, by her remark. 'You think you are, but you're not,
not really.'
She sniffed. 'You're right, I suppose. I'm more like her,
however, than I might be. I'm more like her than some of
the ladies you see working for the poor and the homeless
and the out-of-work -'
'Ladies like Miss Derby,' I said.
She smiled. 'Yes, ladies like that. Miss Derby, your great
friend.' She gave me a wink and took my arm; and because
it was pleasant to see her so light-hearted I began to forget
the little shock that I had had in the seamstress's parlour,
and to grow gay again. Arm-in-arm we made our slow way,
through the sinking autumn night, to Quilter Street, and
Florence yawned. 'Poor Mrs Fryer,' she said. 'She is quite
right: the women will never fight for shorter hours and
minimum wages, while there are so many girls so poorly
off that they'll take any work, however miserable . . .'
I was not listening. I was watching the lamplight where, at
the edges of her hat, it struck her hair and made it glow; and
wondering if a moth might ever come and settle amongst
the curls, mistaking them for candle-flames.
We reached our home at last, and Florence hung her coat up
and began to busy herself, as usual, with her pile of papers
and books. I went quietly upstairs, to gaze at Cyril as he
slumbered in his crib; then I went and sat with Ralph, while
Florence worked on. It grew chilly, and I set a little fire in
the grate: 'The first of autumn,' as Ralph pointed out; and
his words - and the idea that I had been at Quilter Street for
the turning of three whole seasons - were strangely moving
ones. I lifted my eyes to him, and smiled. His whiskers had
grown, and he looked more than ever like the sailor on the
Players' packets. He looked more than ever like his sister,
too, and the likeness made me like him all the more, and
wonder how I had ever mistaken him for her husband.
The fire flamed, then grew hot and ashy, and at half-past
ten or so Ralph yawned, and slapped his chair and rose
from it and wished us both good-night. It was all just as it
had been on my first evening there - except that he had a
kiss for me, too, these days, as well as for Florence; and
there was my little truckle-bed, propped in the corner, and
my shoes beside the fire, and my coat upon the hook behind
the door.
I gazed at all this in a complacent sort of way, then yawned,
and rose to fetch the kettle. 'Stop all that now,' I said to
Florence, nodding at her books. 'Come and sit with me and
talk.' It was not a strange request - we had got rather into
the habit of sitting up when Ralph had gone to bed, chatting
over the day's events - and now she looked at me and
smiled, and set down her pen.
I swung the kettle over the fire, and Florence rose and
stretched - then cocked her head.
'Cyril,' she said. I listened too, and after a second caught his
thin, irregular cry. She moved to the stairs. Til shush him,
before he wakes Ralph.'
She was gone for a full five minutes or so, and when she
returned it was with Cyril himself, his lashes gleaming in
the lamplight and his hair damp and darkened with the
sweat of fretful slumber.
'He won't settle," she said. Til let him stay with us a while.'
She sat back in the armchair by the fire and the child lay
heavily against her. I passed her her tea, and she took a
sideways sip at it, and yawned. Then she gazed at me, and
rubbed her eyes.
'What a help you've been to me, Nance, these past few
months!' she said.
'I only help,' I answered truthfully, 'to stop you wearing
yourself out. You do too much.'
'There's so much to do!'
'I can't believe that all of it should fall to you, though. Do
you never weary of it?'
'I get tired,' she said, yawning again, 'as you can see! But
never of it.'
'But Flo, if it's such an endless task, why labour at all?'
'Why, because I must! Because how could I rest, when the
world is so cruel and hard, and yet might be so sweet. . .
The kind of work I do is its own kind of fulfilment, whether
it's successful or not.' She drank her tea. 'It's like love.'
Love! I sniffed. 'You think love is its own reward, then?'
'Don't you?'
I gazed into my cup. 'I did once, I think,' I said. 'But..." I
had never told her about those days. Cyril wriggled, and she
kissed his head and murmured in his ear, and for a moment
all was very still - perhaps she thought me wondering about
the gent I said I had lived with in St John's Wood. But then
she spoke again, more briskly.
'Besides, I don't believe it is an endless task. Things are
changing. There are unions everywhere — and women's
unions, as well as men's. Women do things today their
mothers would have laughed to think of seeing their
daughters doing, twenty years ago; soon they will even
have the vote! If people like me don't work, it's because
they look at the world, at all the injustice and the muck, and
all they see is a nation falling in upon itself, and taking
them with it. But the muck has new things growing out of it
- wonderful things! - new habits of working, new kinds of
people, new ways of being alive and in love ..." Love again.
I put a finger to the scar upon my cheek, where Dickie's
doctor's book had caught it. Florence bent her head to gaze
at the baby, as he lay sighing upon her chest.
'In another twenty years,' she went on quietly, 'imagine how
the world will be! It will be a new century. Cyril will be a
young man - nearly, but not quite, as old as I am now.
Imagine the things he'll see, the things he'll do . ..' I looked
at her, and then at him; and for a moment I felt almost able
to see with her across the years to the queer new world that
would have Cyril in it, as a man . . .
As I looked, she shifted in her seat, reached a hand out to
the bookcase at her side, and drew a volume from the
bulging shelves. It was Leaves of Grass: she turned its
pages, and found a passage that she seemed to know.
'Listen to this' she said. She began to read aloud. Her tone
was low, and rather self-conscious; but it quivered with
passion -I had never heard such passion in her voice,
'O mater! Ofils!' she read. 'O brood continental! O flowers
of the prairies! O space boundless! O hum of mighty
products! O you teeming cities! O so invincible, turbulent,
proud! O race of the future! O women! O fathers! Oyou
men of passion and storm! O beauty! O yourself! O you
bearded roughs! O bards! O all those slumberers! O arouse!
the dawn-bird's throat sounds shrill! Do you not hear the
cock crowing?'
She sat still for a moment, gazing down at the page; then
she raised her eyes to mine, and I saw with surprise that
they were gleaming with unspilled tears. She said, 'Don't
you think that marvellous, Nancy? Don't you think that a
marvellous, marvellous poem?'
'Frankly, no,' I said: the tears had unnerved me. 'Frankly,
I've seen better verses on some lavatory walls' -I really had.
'If it's a poem, why doesn't it rhyme? What it needs is a few
good rhymes and a nice, jaunty melody.' I reached to take
the book from her, and studied the passage she had read - it
had been underlined, at some earlier date, in pencil - then
sang it out, to the approximate tune and rhythm of some
music-hall song of the moment. Florence laughed, and, with
one hand upon Cyril, tried to snatch the book from me.
'You're a beast!' she cried. 'You're a shocking philistine.'
'I'm a purist,' I said primly. 'I know a nice bit of verse when
I see it, and this ain't it.' I flipped through the book,
abandoning my attempt to try to force the staggering lines
into some sort of melody, but reading all the ludicrous
passages that I could find - there were many of them - and
all in the silly American drawl of a stage Yankee. At last I
found another underlined section, and started on that. 'O my
comrade!' I began. 'Oyou and me at last -and us two only; O
power, liberty, eternity at last! O to be relieved of
distinctions! to make as much of vices as virtues! O to level
occupations and the sexes! O to bring all to common
ground! O adhesiveness! O the pensive aching to be
together - you know not why, and I know not why
My voice trailed away; I had lost my Yankee drawl, and
spoken the last few words in a self-conscious murmur.
Florence had ceased her laughter, and begun to gaze,
apparently quite gravely, into the fire: I saw the orange
flames of the coals reflected in each of her hazel eyes. I
closed the book, and returned it to the shelf. There was a
silence, a rather long one.
At last she took a breath; and when she spoke she sounded
quite unlike herself, and rather strange.
'Nance,' she began, 'do you remember that day in Green
Street, when we talked? Do you remember how we said that
we would meet, and how you didn't come . . . ?'
'Of course,' I said, a little sheepishly. She smiled - a
curiously vague and inward-seeming kind of smile.
'I never said, did I,' she went on, 'what I did that night?' I
shook my head. I remembered very well what I had done
that night - I had supped with Diana, and then fucked her in
her handsome bedroom, and then been sent from it, chilled
and chastened, to my own. But I had never stopped to think
what Florence might have done; and she, indeed, had never
told me.
'What did you do?' I asked now. 'Did you go to that - that
lecture, on your own?'
'I did,' she said. She took a breath. 'I - met a girl there.'
'A girl?'
'Yes. Her name was Lilian. I saw her at once, and couldn't
take my eyes from her. She was so very - interesting
looking. You know how it is, with a girl, sometimes? - well,
no, perhaps you don't..." But I did, I did! And now I gazed
at her, and felt myself grow warm; and then rather chill.
She coughed, and put a hand to her mouth. Then she said,
still gazing at the coals: 'When the lecture was finished
Lilian asked a question -it was a very clever question, and
the speaker was quite thrown by it. I looked at her then, and
knew I must know her. I went over to her, and we began to
talk. We talked - we talked, Nance, for an hour, quite
without stopping! She had the most unusual views. She'd
read, it seemed to me, everything, and had opinions on it
The story went on. They had become friends; Lilian had
come calling ...
'You loved her!' I said.
Florence blushed, and then nodded. 'You couldn't have
known her, and not loved her a little.'
'But Flo, you loved her! You loved her - like a torn!' She
blinked, and put a finger to her lip, and blushed harder than
ever. 'I thought,' she said, 'you might have guessed it...'
'Guessed it! I - I am not sure. I never thought you might
have - well, I cannot say what I thought..."
She turned her head away. 'She loved me, too,' she said,
after a moment. 'She loved me, like anything! But, not in
the same way. I knew it never would be, I didn't mind. The
fact is, she had a man-friend, who wished to marry her. But
she wouldn't do it, she believed in the free union. Nance,
she was the strongest-minded woman I ever knew!'
She sounded, I thought, insufferable; but I had not missed
that was. I swallowed, and Florence gazed once at me, then
looked again at the fire.
'A few months after I first met her,' she went on, 'I began to
see that she was not - quite well. One day she turned up
here with a suitcase. She was to have a baby, had lost her
rooms because of it, and the man - who turned out hopeless,
after all - was too ashamed to take her. She had nowhere ...
Of course, we took her in. Ralph didn't mind, he loved her
almost as much as I did. We planned to live together, and
raise the baby as our own. I was glad - I was glad! - that the
man had thrown her over, that the landlady had cast her
She gave a grimace, then scraped with a nail at a piece of
ash that had come floating from the fire and had fallen on
her skirt. 'Those were, I think, the happiest months of all
my life. Having Lilian here, it was like - I cannot say what
it was like. It was dazzling; I was dazzled with happiness.
She changed the house - really changed it, I mean, not just
its spirit. She had us strip the walls, and paint them. She
made that rug.' She nodded to the gaudy rug before the fire
- the one I had thought woven, in a blither moment, by
some sightless Scottish shepherd - and I quickly took my
feet from it. 'It didn't matter that we weren't lovers; we were
so close - closer than sisters. We slept upstairs, together.
We read together. She taught me things. That picture, of
Eleanor Marx' - she nodded to the little photograph - 'that
was hers. Eleanor Marx was her great heroine, I used to say
she favoured her; I don't have a photograph of Lily. That
book, of Whitman's, that was hers too. The passage you
read out, it always makes me think of me and her. She said
that we were comrades - if women may be comrades.' Her
lips had grown dry, and she passed her tongue across them.
'If women may be comrades,' she said again, 'I was hers . . .'
She grew silent. I looked at her, and at Cyril - at his flushed
and sleeping face, with its delicate lashes and its jutting
pink lip. I said, with a kind of creeping dread: 'And then . . .
She blinked. 'And then - well, then she died. She was too
slight, the confinement was a hard one; and she died. We
couldn't even find a midwife who would see to her, because
she was unmarried - in the end we had to bring a woman in
from Islington, someone who didn't know us, and say that
she was Ralph's wife. The woman called her "Mrs Banner"
- imagine that! She was good enough, I suppose, but rather
strict. She wouldn't let us in the room with her; we had to
sit down here and listen to the cries, Ralph wringing his
hands and weeping all the while. I thought, "Let the baby
die, oh, let the baby die, so long as she is safe . . . !"
'But Cyril did not die, as you see, and Lilian herself seemed
well enough, only tired, and the midwife said to let her
sleep. We did so - and, when I went to her a little later, I
found that she'd begun to bleed. By then, of course, the
midwife had gone. Ralph ran for a doctor - but she couldn't
be saved. Her dear, good, generous heart bled quite away -'
Her voice failed. I moved to her and squatted beside her,
and touched my knuckles to her sleeve; and she
acknowledged me kindly, with a slight, distracted smile.
'I wish I'd known,' I said quietly; inwardly, however, it was
as if I had myself by the throat, and was banging my own
head against the parlour wall. How could I have been so
foolish as not to have guessed it all? There had been the
business of the birthday - the anniversary, I realised now, of
Lilian's death. There had been Florence's strange
depressions; her tiredness, her crossness, her brother's
gentle forbearance, her friends' concern. There had been her
odd ambivalence towards the baby - Lilian's son, yet also,
of course, her murderer, whom Florence had once wished
dead, so that the mother might be saved . . .
I gazed at her again, and wished I knew some way to
comfort her. She was so bleak, yet also somehow so
remote; I had never embraced her, and felt squeamish about
putting a hand upon her, even now. So I only stayed beside
her, stroking gently at her sleeve . . . and at last she roused
herself, and gave a kind of smile; and then I moved away.
'How I have talked,' she said. 'I don't know, I'm sure, what
made me speak of all this, tonight.'
'I'm glad you did,' I said. 'You must - you must miss her,
terribly.' She gazed blankly at me for a moment - as if
missing was rather a paltry emotion, terrible too mild a
term, for her great sadness - and then she nodded and
looked away.
'It has been hard; I have been strange; sometimes I've
wished that I might die, myself. I have, I know, been very
poor company for you and Ralph! And I was not very kind
when you first came, I think. She had been gone a little
under six months then, and the idea of having another girl
about the place - especially you, who I had met the very
week I had found her - well! And then, your story was like
hers, you had been with a gent who had thrown you out,
after he'd got you in trouble - it seemed too queer. But there
was a moment, when you picked up Cyril -I daresay you
don't even remember doing it - but you held Cyril in your
arms, and I thought of her, who had never cradled him at
all... I didn't know whether I could stand to see you do it; or
whether I could bear to see you stop. And then you spoke and you were not like Lily then, of course. And, oh! I've
never been gladder of anything, in all my life!'
She laughed; I made some sort of sound that seemed to pass
for laughter, some kind of face that could be mistaken, in
that dim light, for a smile. Then she gave a terrific yawn,
and rose, and shifted Cyril a little higher against her neck,
and brushed her cheek across his head; and then, after a
moment, she smiled and stepped wearily to the door.
But before she could reach it, I called her name.
I said, 'Flo, there never was a gent who threw me out. It was
a lady I was living with; but I lied, so you'd let me stay. I'm
-I'm a torn, like you.'
'You ore!' She gaped at me. 'Annie said it all along; but I
never thought much about it, after that first night.' She
began to frown. 'And so, if there never was a man, your
story wasn't like Lilian's, at all ..." I shook my head. 'And
you were never in trouble ..."
'Not that kind of trouble.'
'And all this time, you have been here, and I've been
thinking you one thing, and . . .' She looked at me, then,
with a strange expression - I didn't know if she felt angry,
or sad, or bewildered, or betrayed, or what.
I said, 'I'm sorry.' But she only shook her head, and put a
hand across her eyes for a second; and when she took the
hand away, her gaze seemed perfectly clear, and almost
'Annie always said it,' she said again. 'Won't she be pleased,
now! Will you mind it, if I tell her?'
'No, Flo,' I said. 'You may tell who you like.'
Then she went, still shaking her head; and I sat, and listened
to her climb the stairs and creak about in the room above
my head. Then I took some tobacco and a paper, and rolled
myself a cigarette from a tin upon the mantel, and lit it; then
I ground it upon the hearth, and threw it into the fire, and
put my head against my arm, and groaned.
What a fool I'd been! I had blundered into Florence's life,
too full of my own petty bitternesses to notice her great
grief. I had thrust myself upon her and her brother, and
thought myself so sly and charming; I had thought that I
was putting my mark upon their house, and making it mine.
I had believed myself playing in one kind of story, when all
the time, the plot had been a different one - when all the
time, I was only clumsily rehearsing what the fascinating
Lilian had done so well and cleverly before me! I gazed
about the room - at the washed blue walls, the hideous rug,
the portraits: I saw them suddenly for what they were details in a shrine to Lilian's memory, that I, all unwittingly,
had been tending. I caught hold of the little picture of
Eleanor Marx - except it was not Eleanor Marx I saw, of
course; it was her, with Eleanor Marx's features. I turned it
in my hands, and read the back of it: F.B., my comrade, it
said, in large, looped letters, my comrade for ever. L.V.
I groaned still louder. I wanted to chuck the damn picture
into the grate along with my half-smoked fag - I had to
return it quickly to its frame in case I did so. I was jealous,
of Lilian! I was more jealous than I had ever been, of
anyone! Not because of the house; not because of Cyril, or
even Ralph -who had been kind to me, but who had wept
for her, and wrung his hands in grief when she lay dying;
but because of Florence. Because it was Florence, above
all, whom Lilian's story seemed both to have given me, and
to have robbed me of for ever. I thought of my labours of
the past few months. I had not made Florence fat and
happy, as I had supposed: it had only been time, making her
grief less keen, her memories duller. Do you remember how
we said that we would meet, she had asked me tonight, and
how you didn't come . . . ? Her eyes had shone as she had
asked it, for I had done her some sort of wonderful favour
by not turning up that night, two years before.
I had done her a wonderful favour - and done myself, it
seemed to me now, the worst kind of disservice. I thought
again of how I had spent that night, and the nights
following it; I thought of all the lickerish pleasures of
Felicity Place - all the suits, the dinners, the wine, the poses
plastiques. I would have traded them all in, at that moment,
for the chance to have been in Lilian's place at that dull
lecture, and had Florence's hazel eyes upon me, fascinated!
Chapter 18
In the days and weeks following Florence's sad disclosure I
became aware that things at Quilter Street were rather
changed. Florence herself seemed gayer, lighter - as if, in
telling me her history, she had rid herself of some huge
burden, and was now flexing limbs that had been cramped
and numbed, straightening a back that had been bowed. She
was still gloomy, sometimes, and she still went off for
walks, alone, and came back wistful. But she did not try to
hide her melancholy now, or to disguise its cause - letting
me know, for example, that her trips were (as I might have
guessed) to Lilian's grave. In time she even began to speak
of her dead friend, quite routinely. 'How Lilian would have
laughed to hear of that!' she would say; or, 'Now, if Lily
were only here, we might ask her, and she'd be sure to
Her new, sweeter mood had an effect upon us all. The
atmosphere of our little house - which I had always thought
easy enough, before, but which I now saw to have been
quite choked with the memory of Lilian, and with Ralph
and Florence's sorrow - seemed to clear and brighten: it was
as if we were passing not into the fogs and frosts of winter,
but into springtime, with all its mildnesses and balms. I
would see Ralph gazing at his sister as she smiled or
hummed or caught at Cyril and tickled him, and his gaze
would be soft, and he would sometimes lean to kiss her
cheek, in pleasure. Even Cyril himself seemed to feel the
change, and to grow bonnier and more content."
And I, in contrast, became ever more pinched and secretive
and fretful.
I could not help it. It was as if, in casting off her own old
load, Florence had burdened me with a new one; my
feelings -which had been stirred, on the night of her
confession, into such a curious mixture — only seemed to
grow queerer and more contradictory as the weeks went by.
I had been sorry for her, and was as glad as her brother to
see her rather lighter-hearted now; I was also pleased and
touched that she had confided in me at last, and told me all.
But oh, how I wished her story had been different! I could
never learn to like the tragic Lilian, and had to bite back my
crossness when she was spoken of so reverently. Perhaps I
pictured her as Kitty - it was certainly Walter's face I saw,
whenever I thought of her cowardly man-friend; but it made
me hot and giddy to think of her, commanding Florence's
passion, sleeping beside her night after night - and never so
much as turning he face to her friend, to kiss her mouth.
Why had Florence cared for her so much? I would gaze at
the photograph of Eleanor Marx -I could never shake off
the confused conviction that it was really Lilian's features
printed there - until the face began to swim before my eyes.
She was so different from me — hadn't Florence herself
told me that? She said she had never been gladder of
anything, than that I was so different from Lilian! She
meant, I suppose, that Lilian was clever, and good; that she
knew the meaning of words like cooperative, and so never
had to ask. But I - what was I? I was only tidy, and clean.
Well, I think I was never quite so tidy, after that night. I
certainly never beat the dirt from Lilian's gaudy rug again but smiled when people stepped on it, and took a dreadful
pleasure in watching its colours grow dim.
But then I would imagine Lilian in paradise, weaving more
carpets so that Florence might one day come and sit on
them and rest her head against her knee. I imagined her
stocking up the bookshelves with essays and poems, so that
she and Florence might walk, side by side, reading together.
I saw her preparing a stove in some small back kitchen in
heaven, so that I should have somewhere to stew the oysters
while she and Flo held hands.
I began to look at Florence's hands -I had never done such a
thing before - and imagine all the occupations I would have
set them to, had I been in Lilian's place ...
Again, I couldn't help it. I had persuaded myself that
Florence was a kind of saint, with a saint's dimmed,
unguessable limbs and warmths and warnings; but now, in
telling me the story of her own great love, it was as if she
had suddenly shown herself to me, robeless. And I could
not tear my eyes from what I saw.
One night, for example - one dark night, quite late, when
Ralph was out with his union friends and Cyril was quiet
upstairs - she bathed and washed her hair, then sat in the
parlour with her dressing-gown about her, and fell asleep. I
had helped her tip her tub of soapy water down the privy,
then gone to warm some milk for us to drink; and when I
returned with the mugs, I found her slumbering there,
before the fire. She was sitting, slightly twisted, and her
head had fallen back, and her arms were slack and heavy,
and her hands were loose and vaguely folded in her lap. Her
breaths were deep, and almost snores.
I stood before her, holding the steaming mugs. She had
taken the towel from her head, and her hair was spread out
over the bit of lace on the back of her chair, like the halo on
a Flemish madonna. I did not think that I had ever seen her
hair so full and loose before, and I studied it now for a long
time. I remembered when I had thought it was a dreary
auburn; but it was not auburn, there were a thousand tints of
gold and brown and copper in it. It rose and curled, and
grew ever more rich and lustrous, as it dried.
I looked from her hair to her face - to her lashes, to her
wide pink mouth, to the line of her jaw, and the subtle
weight of flesh beneath it. I looked at her hands - I
remembered seeing them at Green Street, beating the hot
June air; I remembered taking her hand in mine, a little later
-I remembered the exact pressure of her fingers, in their
warm linen glove, against my own. Her hands were pink,
tonight, and still a little puckered from her bath. Her nails which she had used, I remembered now, to chew - were
neat and quite unbitten.
I looked at her throat. It was smooth, and very white;
beneath it - just visible in the spreading V at the neck of her
dressing-gown - was the hint of the beginnings of the swell
of a breast.
I looked - and looked - and felt a curious movement in my
own breast, a kind of squirming or turning, or flexing, that I
seemed not to have felt there for a thousand years. It was
followed almost immediately by a similar sensation, rather
lower down . . . The mugs of milk began to quiver, until I
feared they would spill. I turned, and placed them carefully
upon the supper-table; and then I crept, very quietly, from
the room.
With every step I took away from her, the movement at my
heart and between my legs grew more defined: I felt like a
ventriloquist, locking his protesting dolls into a trunk.
When I reached the kitchen I stood and leaned against a
wall - I was still trembling, worse than ever. I did not return
to the parlour until I heard Florence wake and exclaim, a
half-hour later, over the mugs of milk that I had left upon
the table to grow cool and scummy; and even then I was so
flushed and shaken that she looked at me and said, 'What's
wrong with you?', and I had to answer, 'Nothing, nothing . .
.' - all the time averting my gaze from that white V of
curving flesh beneath her throat, because I knew that, if I
looked at it again, I would be compelled to step to her and
kiss it.
I had come to Quilter Street to be ordinary; now I was more
of a torn than ever. Indeed, once I had made my own
confession on the matter and begun to look about me, I saw
that I was quite surrounded by toms, and couldn't believe I
had not noticed them before. Two of Florence's charityworker friends, it seemed, were sweethearts: I suppose she
must have tipped them off about me, for the next time they
came calling, I thought they gazed at me in quite a different
sort of way. As for Annie Page: when next I saw her she
put her arm about my shoulder and said, 'Nancy! Florrie
tells me you're a cousin! My dear, I never was less
surprised by anything, nor more delighted ..."
And, for all that my bewildering new interest in Flo was
such a troublesome one, it was rather marvellous to feel my
lusts all on the rise again - to have my tommish parts all
greased and purring, like an engine with a flame set to the
coals. I dreamed one night that I was walking in Leicester
Square in my old guardsman's uniform, with my hair
clipped military-style and a glove behind the buttons of my
trousers (in fact, one of Florence's gloves: I could never
look at it again, without blushing]. I had had such dreams
before, at Quilter Street - minus the detail of the glove, of
course; but this time, when I woke, there was a prickling at
my scalp and a tickling at the inside of my thighs that
remained insistent, and I fingered my drab little curls and
my flowery frock in a kind of disgust. I went, that day, to
the Whitechapel Market; and on the way home I found
myself lingering at the window of a gentlemen's outfitters,
with my forehead and my fingertips pressing smears of
sweat and longing against the glass . . .
And then I thought, Why not? I went in - perhaps the tailor
thought me shopping for my brother - and bought a pair of
moleskin trousers, and a set of drawers and a shirt, and a
pair of braces and some lace-up boots; then, back at Quilter
Street, I knocked on the door of a girl who was known for
doing haircuts for a penny and said: 'Cut it off, cut it all off,
quick, before I change my mind!' She scissored the curls
away, and - toms, grow easily sentimental over their
haircuts, but I remember this sensation very vividly - it was
not like she was cutting hair, it was as if I had a pair of
wings beneath my shoulder-blades, that the flesh had all
grown over, and she was slicing free . . .
Florence came home distracted that night, and hardly
seemed to notice whether I had hair upon my head or not —
though Ralph said, in a hopeful way, 'Now, there's a
handsome hair-cut!' She didn't see me in my moleskins,
either: for I had promised myself that, for the sake of the
neighbours, I would only wear them to do the housework
in; and by the time she came home from Stratford each
night, I had changed back into my frock and put an apron
on. But then, one day, she came home early. She came
home the back way, through the yard behind the kitchen;
and I was at the window, cleaning the glass. It was a large
window, divided into panes: I had covered the panes with
polish, and was wiping them clear, one by one. I was
dressed in the moleskin bags and the shirt -I had left the
collar off - my sleeves were rolled above my elbows, and
my arms were dusty and my fingernails black. My throat
was damp at the hollow, and my top lip wet - I paused to
wipe it. My hair I had combed flat, but it had shaken itself
loose: there was a long front lock which kept tumbling into
my eyes, so that I had to push out my lip to blow it back, or
swipe at it with my wrist. I had cleaned all the panes except
the one before my face; and when I wiped at this I jumped,
for Florence was standing on the other side of it, very still.
She was clad in her coat and hat, and had her satchel over
her arm; but she was gazing at me as if - well, I had had too
many admiring glances come my way, in the years since I
had first walked before Kitty Butler in a party-gown and
not known why it was she flushed to look at me, not to
know why it was that Florence, studying me in my
moleskins and my crop, flushed now.
But, like Kitty, her desire seemed almost as painful to her
as it was pleasant. When she caught my eye, she lowered
her head and walked into the house; and all that she would
say was: 'Why, what a shine you have put upon the glass!'
And while it was glorious to know that - at last, and all
unwittingly! - I had made her look at me and want me;
while I had felt, for the second that her gaze had met mine,
the leaping of my own new passion, and an answering
passion in her; and while that passion had left me giddy,
and aching, and hot, it was as much with nervousness as
with lust that I trembled and grew weak.
Anyway, when I met her later her eyes were dim and she
kept them turned from me; and I thought, again, Why
would she ever care for me, while she still grieved for
somebody like Lilian?
And so we went on, and the year grew colder. When
Christmas came I spent it not at Quilter Street, but at
Freemantle House, where Florence had organised a dinner
for her girls and needed extra hands to baste the goose and
wash the dishes. At New Year we drank a toast to 1895,
and another to 'absent friends' - she meant Lilian, of course;
I'd never told her about all the friends that I had lost. In
January there was Ralph's birthday to celebrate. It fell, in
the most uncanny fashion, on the same day as Diana's; and
as I smiled to see him opening his gifts, I remembered the
bust of Antinous, and wondered if it was still casting its
frigid glances over the warm transactions at Felicity Place,
and whether Diana ever looked at it and remembered me.
But by now I had grown so at home in Bethnal Green that I
could barely believe I had ever lived anywhere else, or
imagine a time when Quilter Street routines were not my
own. I had become used to the neighbours' racket, and to
the clamour of the street. I bathed once a week, like
Florence and Ralph, and the rest of the time was content to
wash in a bowl: Diana's bathroom had become a strange
and distant memory to me - as of paradise, after the fall. I
kept my hair short. I wore my trousers, as I had planned, to
do the housework in -at least, for a month or so I did: after
that, the neighbours had
all caught glimpses of me in them, and since I had become
known in the district as something of a trouser-wearer, it
seemed rather a fuss to take the trousers off at night and put
a frock on. No one appeared to mind it; in some houses in
Bethnal Green, after all, it was a luxury to have any sort of
clothes at all, and you regularly saw women in their
husbands' jackets, and sometimes a man in a shawl. Mrs
Monks' daughters, next door, would run squealing when
they saw me. Ralph's union colleagues tended to look me
over, as they debated, and then lose the thread of their text.
Ralph himself, however, would sometimes wander
downstairs with a shirt or a flannel waistcoat in his hand,
saying vaguely: 'I found this, Nance, in the bottom of my
cupboard, and wondered, would the thing be any use to you
. . . ?'
As for Florence - well, increasingly I seemed to catch her
gazing at me as she had gazed at me that day through the
glass of the window; but always - always - she would look
away again, and her eyes would grow dark. I longed to keep
them fixed upon me, but didn't know how. I had made
myself saucy, for Diana's sake; I had flirted heartlessly with
Zena; but with Florence I might as well have been eighteen
again, sweating and anxious - afraid, of trespassing upon
her fading sorrow. If only, I would think, we were maryannes. If only I were a renter again, and she some nervous
Soho gent, and I could simply lead her to some shabby
shady place and there unbutton her . . .
But we were not mary-annes; we were only a couple of
blushing toms, hesitating between desire and the deed,
while the winter slid by, and the year grew slowly older and Eleanor Marx stayed fixed to the wall, grave and untidy
and ageless.
The change came in February, on quite an ordinary day. I
went to Whitechapel, to the market - a very regular thing to
do, I did it often. When I came home, I came through the
yard; I found the back door slightly open, and so entered
the house quite noiselessly. As I put my parcels down upon
the kitchen floor I heard voices in the parlour - Florence's,
and Annie's. The doors between were all ajar, and I could
hear them perfectly: 'She works at a printer's,' Annie was
saying. 'The handsomest woman you ever saw in your life.'
'Oh Annie, you always say that.'
'No, really. She was sitting at a desk at a page of text, and
the sun was on her and making her shine. When she raised
her eyes to me I held my hand out to her. I said, "Are you
Sue Bridehead? My name's Jude . . .'"
Florence laughed: they had all just been reading the latest
chapter of that novel, in a magazine; I daresay Annie would
not have made the joke, had she known how the story
would turn out. Now Florence said: 'And what did she say
to that? That she wasn't sure, but thought Sue Bridehead
might work at the other office . . . ?'
'Not at all. What she said was: Allelujah! Then she took my
hand and — oh, then I knew I was in love, for sure!'
Flo laughed again - but in a thoughtful kind of way. After a
second she murmured something that I did not catch, but
which made her friend laugh. Then Annie said, still with a
smile to her voice: 'And how is that handsome uncle of
Uncle? I thought, moving to warm my hands against the
stove. What uncle is that? I didn't feel like an eavesdropper.
I heard Florence give a tut. 'She's not my uncle,' she said she said it very clearly. 'She's not my uncle, as you well
'Not your uncle?' cried Annie then. 'A girl like that - with
hair like that - growling about in your parlour in a pair of
chamois trousers like a regular little bricksetter ..."
At that, I didn't care if I were eavesdropping or not: I took a
swift silent step into the passageway, and listened rather
harder. Florence laughed again.
'I promise you,' she said, 'she's not my uncle.'
'Why not? Why ever not? Florrie, I despair of you. It's
unnatural, what you're doing. It's like - like having a roast
in the pantry, and eating nothing but bits of crusts and cups
of water. What I say is, if you're not going to make an uncle
of her, then, really, consider your friends, and pass her on to
somebody who will.'
'You ain't having her!'
'I don't want anyone, now I've found Sue Bridehead. But
there, you see, you do care for her!'
'Of course I care for her,' said Florence quietly. Now I was
listening so hard I felt I could hear her blinking, pursing her
'Well then! Bring her to the boy tomorrow night' - I was
sure that's what she said. 'Bring her to the boy. You can
meet my Miss Raymond ..."
'I don't know,' answered Florence. The words were
followed by a silence. And when Annie spoke next, it was
in a slightly different tone.
'You cannot grieve for her for ever,' she said. 'She would
never have wanted that. . .'
Florence tutted. 'Being in love, you know,' she said, 'it's not
like having a canary, in a cage. When you lose one
sweetheart, you can't just go out and get another to replace
'I thought that's exactly what you were supposed to do!'
That's what you do, Annie.'
'Bur Florence - you might just let the cage door open, just a
little . . . There is a new canary in your own front room,
banging its handsome head against the bars.'
'Suppose I let the new one in,' said Flo then, 'then find I
don't care for it, as much as I did the old one? Suppose Oh!' I heard a thump. 'I can't believe that you have got me
here, comparing her to a budgie!' I knew she meant Lilian,
not me; and I turned my head away, and wished I hadn't
listened after all. The parlour remained quiet for a second or
two, and I heard Florence dip her spoon into her cup, and
stir it. Then, before I had quite tiptoed back into the
kitchen, her voice came again, but rather quietly.
'Do you think it's true, though, what you said, about the new
canary and the bars . . . ?'
My foot caught a broom, then, and sent it falling; and I had
to give a shout and slap my hands, as if I had just that
moment come home. Annie called me in and said that tea
was brewed. Florence seemed to raise her eyes to mine, a
little thoughtfully.
Annie left soon after, and Florence busied herself, all night,
with paper-work: she had lately got herself a pair of
spectacles, and with them flashing firelight all night, I could
not even see which way her glances tended - to me, or to
her books. We said good-night in our usual way, but then
we both lay wakeful. I could hear her creaking about in her
bed upstairs, and once she went out to the privy. I thought
she might have paused on her way, outside my door, to
listen for my snores. I didn't call out to her.
Next morning I was too tired to study her terribly hard; but
as I set the pan of bacon on the stove, she came to me. She
came very close, and then she said, quite low - perhaps so
that her brother, who was in the room across the
passageway, might not hear: 'Nance, will you come out
with me tonight?'
Tonight?' I said, yawning, and frowning at the bacon, which
I had put too wet into a too-hot pan, so that it hissed and
steamed. 'Where to? Not collecting subscriptions again,
'Not subscriptions, no. Not work at all, in fact, but pleasure.'
'Pleasure!' I had never heard her say the word before, and it
seemed, all of a sudden, a terribly lewd one. Perhaps she
thought the same, for now she blushed a little, and took up
a spoon and began to fiddle with it.
'There's a public-house near Cable Street,' she went on,
'with a ladies' room in it. The girls call it "The Boy in the
Boat. . .'"
'Oh yes?'
She looked once at me, and then away again. 'Yes. Annie
will be there, she says, with a new friend of hers; and
perhaps Ruth and Nora.'
'Ruth and Nora too!' I said lightly: they were the two
girlfriends who had turned out sweethearts. 'Is it to be all
toms, then?'
To my surprise she nodded, quite seriously: 'Yes.'
All toms! The thought sent me into a fever. It was twelve
months since I had last passed an evening in a room full of
woman-lovers: I was not sure I still possessed the knack.
What would I wear? What attitude would I strike? All
toms! What would they make of me? And what would they
make of Florence?
'Will you still go,' I asked, 'if I don't?'
'I rather thought I might..."
Then I'll certainly come,' I said - and had to look quickly to
the pan of smoking bacon, and so didn't see whether she
looked pleased, or satisfied, or indifferent.
I passed a fretful day, picking through my few dull frocks
and skirts in the hope of finding some forgotten tommish
gem amongst them. Of course, there was nothing except my
work-stained moleskins; and these - while they might have
caused something of a sensation at the Cavendish Club - I
thought must be rather too bold for an East End audience,
so I cast them regretfully aside in favour of a skirt, and a
gentleman's shirt and collar, and a tie. The shirt and collar I
cleaned and starched myself, and rinsed in washing-blue to
make them shine; the neck-tie was of silk - a very fine silk,
with only a slight imperfection to the weave, which Ralph
had brought me from his workshop, and which I had had
made up at a Jewish tailor's. The silk was of blue, and
showed off my eyes.
I didn't change, of course, until after we had cleared the
supper things; and when I did - banishing poor Ralph and
Cyril to the kitchen while I washed and dressed before the
parlour fire - it was with a kind of anxious thrill, an almost
queasy gaiety. For all that it was skirts and stays and
petticoats that I pulled on, I felt as I thought a young man
must feel, when dressing for his sweetheart; and all the time
I buttoned my costume, and fumbled blindly with my
collar-stud and necktie, there came a creaking of the boards
above my head, and a swishing of material, until at last I
could hardly believe that it was not my sweetheart up there,
dressing for me.
When she pushed at the parlour door and stepped into the
room at last, I stood blinking at her for a moment, quite at a
loss. She had changed out of her work-dress into a shirtwaist, and a waistcoat, and a skirt. The skirt was of some
heavy winter stuff, but damson-coloured, and very warm
upon the eye. The waistcoat was a lighter shade, the shirtwaist almost red; at her throat was pinned a brooch: a few
chips of garnet, in a golden surround. It was the first time in
a year that I had seen her out of her sober suits of black and
brown, and she seemed quite transformed. The reds and
damsons brought out the blush of her lip, the gold shine of
her curling hair, the whiteness of her throat and hands, the
pinkness and the pale half-moons at her thumb-nails.
'You look," I said awkwardly, 'very handsome.' She
'I have grown too stout,' she said, 'for all my newer clothes .
. .' Then she gazed at my own gear. 'You look very smart.
How well that neck-tie becomes you - doesn't it? Except,
you have tied it crooked. Here.' She came towards me, and
took hold of the knot to straighten it; the pulse at my throat
began at once to knock against her fingers, and I started a
fruitless fumbling at my hips for a pair of pockets in which
to thrust my hands. 'What a fidget you are,' she said mildly,
quite as if she were addressing Cyril; but her cheeks, I
noticed, had not paled - nor was her voice, I thought, quite
She finished at my throat at last, then stepped away again.
'There is just my hair,' I said. I took two brushes and
dampened them in my water-jug, and combed the hair away
from my face till it was flat and sleek; then I greased my
palms with macassar — I had macassar, now — and ran
them over my head until the hair felt heavy, and the little,
overheated room was thick with scent. And all the time,
Florence leaned against the frame of the parlour door and
watched me; and when I had finished, she laughed.
'My word, what a pair of beauties!' This was Ralph, come
that moment along the passageway, with Cyril at his feet.
'We didn't recognise them, did we, son?' Cyril held up his
arms to Florence, and she lifted him with a grunt. Ralph put
his hand upon her shoulder and said, in an altogether softer
tone, 'How fair you look, Flo. I haven't seen you look so
fair, for a year and more.' She tilted her head, graciously;
they might for a moment have been a knight and his lady, in
some medieval portrait. Then Ralph looked my way, and
smiled; and I didn't know who it was that I loved more, then
- his sister, or him.
'Now, you will manage with Cyril, won't you?' said
Florence anxiously, when she had handed the baby back to
Ralph and begun to button her coat.
'I should think I will!' said her brother.
'We won't be late.'
'You must be as late as you like; we shall not wonder. Only
mind you are careful. They are rather rough streets, that you
must cross ..."
The trip from Bethnal Green to Cable Street did indeed take
us through some of the roughest, poorest, squalidest
districts in the city, and could never, ordinarily, be very
cheerful. I knew the route, for I had walked it often with
Florence: I knew which courts were grimmest, which
factories sweated their workers hardest, which tenements
housed the saddest and most hopeless families. But we
were out that night together -as Florence herself had
admitted - for pleasure's sake; and though it might seem
strange to say it, our journey was indeed a pleasant one, and
seemed to take us over a rather different landscape to the
one we normally trod. We passed gin-palaces and pennygaffs, coffee-shops and public-houses: they were not the
grim and dreary places that they sometimes were, tonight,
but luminous with warmth and light and colour, thick with
laughter and shouts, and with the reeking odours of beer
and soup and gravy. We saw spooning couples; and girls
with cherries on their hats, and lips to match them; and
children bent over hot, steaming packets of tripe, and
trotters, and baked potatoes. Who knew to what sad homes
they might be returning, in <an hour or two? For now,
however, there was a queer kind of glamour to them, and to
the very streets - Diss Street, Sclater Street, Hare Street,
Fashion Street, Plumbers Row, Coke Street, Pinckin Street,
Little Pearl Street - in which they walked.
'How gay the city seems tonight!' said Florence
It is for you, I wanted to reply: for you and your new
costume. But I only smiled at her and took her arm; then,
'Look at that coat!' I said, as we passed a boy in a yellow
felt jacket that was bright, in the Brick Lane shadows, as a
lantern. 'I knew a girl once, oh! she would have loved that
coat. ..'
It did not take us long, after that, to reach Cable Street.
Here we turned left, then right; and at the end of this road I
saw the public-house that was, I guessed, our destination: a
squat, flat-roofed little building with a gas-jet in a plumcoloured shade above the door, and a garish sign - The
Frigate - that reminded me how near our walk had brought
us to the Thames.
'It's this way,' said Florence self-consciously. She led me
past the door and around the building to a smaller, darker
entrance at the back. Here a set of rather steep and
treacherous-looking steps took us downwards, to what must
once have been a cellar; at the bottom there was a door of
frosted glass, and behind this was the room - the Boy in the
Boat, I remembered to call it - that we had come for.
It was not a large room, but it was very shady, and it took
me a time to gauge its breadth and height, to see beyond its
spots of brightness - its crackling fire, its gas-lamps, the
gleam of brass and glass and mirror and pewter at its bar into the pools of gloom that lay between them. There were,
I guessed, about twenty persons in it: they were seated in a
row of little stalls, or standing propped against the counter,
or gathered in the furthest, brightest corner, about what
seemed to be a billiard table. I didn't like to gaze at them for
long, for at our appearance they all, of course, looked up,
and I felt strangely shy of them and their opinion.
Instead I kept my head down, and followed Florence to the
bar. There was a square-chinned woman standing behind it,
wiping at a beer-glass with a cloth; when she saw us
coming she put both glass and towel down, and smiled.
'Why, Florence! How grand to see you here again! And
how bonny you are looking!' She held out her hand and
took Florence's fingers in her own, and looked her over
with pleasure. Then she turned to me.
This is my friend, Nancy Astley,' said Flo, rather shyly.
'This is Mrs Swindles, who keeps bar here.' Mrs Swindles
and I exchanged nods and smiles. I took off my coat and
hat, and ran my fingers through my hair; and when she saw
me do that her brow lifted a little and I hoped that she was
thinking, as Annie Page had: Well, Florence has a fancy
new uncle, all right!
'What will you have, Nance?' Florence asked me then. I
said I would have whatever she cared for, and she hesitated,
then asked for two rum hots. 'Let's take them to a stall.' We
stepped across the room - there was sand upon the
floorboards, and our boots crunched upon it as we walked to a table, set between two benches. We sat, across from
one another, and stirred sugar into our glasses.
'You were a regular here once, then?' I asked Flo.
She nodded. 'I haven't been here for an age ..."
'Not since Lily died. It's a bit of a monkey-parade, to tell the
truth. I haven't had the heart for it, . .'
I gazed into my rum. All at once there came a burst of
laughter from the stall at my back that made me jump.
'I said,' came a girl's voice, '"I only does that sort of thing,
sir, with my friends." "Emily Pettinger," he said, "said you
let her flat fuck you for an hour and a half" - which is a lie,
but anyway, "Flat fucking is one thing, sir," I said, 'and this
quite another. If you want me to —her'" - here she must
have made a gesture - '"you shall have to pay me for it,
rather dear.'"
'And did he, then?' came another voice. The first speaker
paused, perhaps to take a sip from her glass; then, 'Swipe
me!' she said, 'if the bastard didn't put his hand in his pocket
and pull out a sov, and lay it on the table-top, all cool as
you like . . .'
I looked at Florence, and she smiled. 'Gay girls,' she said.
'Half the girls who come in here are gay. Do you mind it?'
How could I mind it, when I had been a gay girl - well, a
gay boy - once, myself? I shook my head.
'Do you mind it?' I asked her.
'No. I'm only sorry that they must do it..."
I didn't listen: I was too taken with the gay girl's story. She
was saying now: 'We flat fucked for a half-an-hour; then
tipped the velvet while the gent looked on. Then Susie took
a pair of vampers, and -'
I looked again at Florence, and frowned. 'Are they French,
or what?' I asked. 'I can't understand a thing they're saying.'
And indeed, I could not; for I had never heard such words
before, in all my time upon the streets. I said, 'Tipped the
velvet: what does that mean? It sounds like something you
might do in a theatre ..."
Florence blushed. 'You might try it,' she said; 'but I think
the chairman would chuck you out ..." Then, while I still
frowned, she parted her lips and showed me the tip of her
tongue; and glanced, very quickly, at my lap. I had never
known her do such a thing before, and I found myself
terribly startled by it, and terribly stirred. It might just as
well have been her lips that she had dipped to me: I felt my
drawers grow damp, and my cheeks flush scarlet; and had
to look away from her own warm gaze, to hide my
I looked at Mrs Swindles at the bar, and at the pewter mugs
that hung, in one long gleaming row, above her; and then I
looked at the group of figures at the billiard table. And then,
after a moment or two, I studied them a little harder. I said
to Florence, 'I thought you said it was to be all toms here?
There are blokes over there.'
'Blokes? Are you sure?' She turned to where I pointed, and
gazed with me at the billiard players. They were rather
rowdy, and half of them were clad in trousers and
waistcoats, and sported prison crops. But as Florence
studied them, she laughed. 'Blokes? she said again. 'Those
are not blokes! Nancy, how could you think it?'
I blinked, and looked again. I began to see ... They were not
men, but girls; they were girls - and they were rather like
myself. . .
I swallowed. I said, 'Do they live as men, those girls?'
Florence shrugged, not noticing the thickness in my voice.
'Some do, I believe. Most dress as they please, and live as
others care to find them.' She caught my gaze. 'I had rather
thought, you know, that you must've done the same sort of
thing, yourself..."
'Would you think me very foolish,' I answered, 'if I said that
I had thought I was the only one . . . ?'
Her gaze grew gentle, then. 'How queer you are!' she said
mildly. 'You have never tipped the velvet -'
'I didn't say that I had never done it, you know; only that I
never called it that.'
'Well. You use all sorts of peculiar phrases, then. You seem
never to have seen a torn in a pair of trousers. Really,
Nance, sometimes - sometimes I think you must've been
born quite grown - like Venus in the sea-shell, in the
She put a finger to the side of her glass, to catch a trickle of
sugary rum; then put the finger to her lip. I felt my throat
grow even thicker, and my heart give a strange kind of
lurch. Then I sniffed, and gazed again at the trousered toms
beside the billiard-table.
'To think,' I said after a second, 'that I might have worn my
moleskins, after all . . .' Florence laughed.
We sat sipping at our rums a little longer; more women
arrived, and the room became hotter and noisier and thick
with smoke. I went to the bar to have our glasses re-filled,
and when I walked with them back to our stall I found
Annie there, with Ruth and Nora and another girl, a fairhaired, pretty girl, who was introduced to me as Miss
Raymond. 'Miss Raymond works in a print-shop,' said
Annie, and I had to pretend surprise to hear it. When, after
half-an-hour or so, she went off to find the lavatory, Annie
made us rearrange our places so that she might sit next to
'Quick, quick!' she cried. 'She'll be back in a moment!
Nancy, over there!' I found myself placed between Florence
and the wall; and for lovely long moments at a time I let the
other women talk, and savoured the press of her damson
thigh against my own more sober, more slender one. Every
time she turned to me I felt her breath upon my cheek, hot
and sugary and scented with rum.
The evening passed: I began to think that I had never spent
a pleasanter one. I gazed at Ruth and Nora, and saw them
lean together and laugh. I looked at Annie: she had her
hand upon Miss Raymond's shoulder, her eyes upon her
face. I looked at Florence, and she smiled. 'All right,
Venus?' she said. Her hair had sprung right out of its pins,
and was curling about her collar.
Then Nora began one of those earnest stories - This girl
came into the office today, listen to this ..." - and I yawned,
and looked away from her, towards the billiard players; and
was very surprised to find the knot of women there all
turned away from their table, and gazing at me. They
seemed to be debating me - one nodded, another shook her
head, yet another squinted at me, and thumped her billiard
cue upon the floor emphatically. I began to grow a little
uncomfortable: perhaps — who knew? -I had breached
some tommish etiquette, coming here in short hair and a
skirt. I looked away; and when I looked again, one of the
women had disentangled herself from her neighbours, and
was stepping purposefully towards our stall. She was a
large woman, and she had her sleeves rolled up to her
elbows. On her arm there was a rough tattoo, so green and
smudged it might have been a bruise. She reached out
booth, placed the tattooed arm across the back of it, and
leaned to catch my eye.
'Excuse me, sweetheart,' she said, rather loudly. 'But my pal
Jenny will have it that you're that Nan King gal, what used
to work the halls with Kitty Butler. I've a shilling on it that
you ain't her. Now, will you settle it?'
I looked quickly around the table. Florence and Annie had
looked up in mild surprise. Nora had broken off her story
and now smiled and said, 'I should make the most of this
Nance. There might be a free drink in it.' Miss Raymond
laughed. No one believed that I really might be Nan King;
and I, of course, had spent five years in hiding from that
history, denying I had ever been her, myself.
But the rum, the warmth, my new, unspoken passion
seemed to work in me like oil in a rusted lock. I turned back
to the woman. 'I'm afraid,' I said, 'that you must lose your
bet. I am Nan King.' It was the truth, and yet I felt like an
impostor - as if I had just said, 'I am Lord Rosebery'. I did
not look at Florence -though out of the corner of my eye I
saw her mouth fly open. I looked at the tattooed woman,
and gave her a modest little shrug. She, for her part, had
stepped back; now she slapped our stall until it shook, and
called, laughing, to her friend.
'Jenny, you have won your coin! The gal says she is Nan
King, all right!'
At her words the group at the billiard-table let up a cry, and
half the room fell silent. The gay girls in the neighbouring
stall got up, to peer over at me; I heard 'Nan King, it is Nan
King there!' whispered at every table. The tattooed tom's
friend -Jenny - came stepping over, and held her hand out
to me.
'Miss King,' she said, 'I knew it was you the moment you
come in. What happy times I used to have, watching you
and Miss Butler at the Paragon!'
'You're very kind,' I said, taking her hand. As I did so, I
caught Florence's eye.
'Nance,' she asked, 'what is all this? Did you really work the
halls? Why did you never say?'
'It was all rather long ago . . .' She shook her head, and
looked me over.
'You don't mean you didn't know your friend was such a
star?' asked Jenny now, overhearing.
'We didn't know that she was any kind of star,' said Annie.
'Her and Kitty Butler - what a team! There never was a pair
o' mashers like "em . . .'
'Mashers!' said Florence.
'Why yes,' continued Jenny. Then: 'Why, just a minute - I
believe there is the very thing to show it, here ..." She
pushed her way through the crowd of gaping women to the
bar, and here I saw her catch the barmaid's eye, then gesture
towards the wall behind the rows of upturned bottles. There
was a faded piece of baize there, with a hundred old notes
and picture-postcards fastened to it; I saw Mrs Swindles
reach into the layers of curling paper for a second, then
draw out something small and bent. This she handed to
Jenny; in a moment it had been placed before me, and I
found myself gazing at a photograph: Kitty and I, faint but
unmistakable, in Oxford bags and boaters. I had my hand
upon her shoulder, and a cigarette, unlit, between the
I looked and looked at the picture. I remembered very
clearly the weight and scent of that suit, the feel of Kitty's
shoulder beneath my hand. Even so, it was like gazing into
someone else's past, and it made me shiver.
The postcard was seized from me, then, first by Florence who bent her head to it and studied it almost as intently as I
had - then by Ruth and Nora, and Annie and Miss
Raymond, and finally by Jenny, who passed it on to her
'Fancy us still having that pinned up,' she said. 'I remember
the gal what put it there: she was rather keen on you indeed, you was always something of a favourite, at the
Boy. She got it from a lady in the Burlington Arcade. Did
you know there was a lady there, selling pictures such as
yours, to interested gals?' I shook my head - in wonder, to
think of all the times that I had trolled up and down the
Burlington Arcade for interested gents, and never noticed
that particular lady.
'What a treat, Miss King,' cried someone else then, 'to find
you here ..." There was a general murmuring as the
implications of this comment were digested; 'I cannot say I
never wondered,' I heard someone say. Then Jenny leaned
near to me again, and cocked her head.
'What about Miss Butler, if you don't mind my asking? I
heard she was a bit of a torn, herself.'
That's right,' said another girl, 'I heard that too.'
I hesitated. Then: 'You heard wrong,' I said. 'She wasn't.'
'Not just a bit. . . ?'
'Not at all.'
Jenny shrugged. 'Well, that's too bad.'
I looked at my lap, suddenly upset; worse, however, was to
follow, for at that moment one of the gay girls thrust her
way between Ruth and Nora to call, 'Oh, Miss King, won't
you give us a song?' Her cry was taken up by a dozen
throats - 'Oh yes, Miss King, do!' - and, as in a terrible
dream, a broken-down old piano was suddenly produced, it
seemed, from nowhere, and wheeled over the gritty
floorboards. At once, a woman sat down before it, cracked
her knuckles, and played a staggering scale.
'Really,' I said, 'I can't!' I looked wildly at Florence - she
was studying me as if she had never seen my face before.
Jenny cried carelessly: 'Oh, go on, Nan, be a sport, for the
gals at the Boy. What was that one you used to sing - about
winking at the pretty ladies, with your hand hanging on to
your sovereign . . . ?'
One voice, and then another and another, picked it up.
Annie had taken a swig of her beer, and now almost choked
on it. 'Lord! she said, wiping her mouth. 'Did you sing that?
I saw you once at the Holborn Empire! You threw a
chocolate coin at me - it was half-melted from the heat of
your pocket -I ate it, and thought I should die! Oh, Nancyl'
I gazed at her and bit my lip. The billiard players had all set
down their cues and moved to stand about the piano; the
pianist was picking out the chords of the song, and about
twenty women were singing it. It was a silly song, but I
remembered Kitty's voice lilting upwards at the chorus, and
giving the tune a kind of sweet liquidity, as if the foolish
phrases turned to honey on her tongue. It sounded very
different here, in this rough cellar - and yet, it had a certain
trueness, too, and a new sweetness all of its own. I listened
to the boisterous girls, and found myself beginning to hum
... In a moment I had knelt upon my seat and joined my
voice with theirs; and afterwards they cheered and clapped
me, and I found I had to put my head upon my arm, and
bite my lip, to stop the tears from coming.
They started on another song, then - not one of mine and
Kitty's, but a new one that I didn't know, and so could not
join in with. I sat down, and let my head fall back against
the panels of the stall. A girl arrived at the end of our table
with a pork pie on a plate, sent over from Mrs Swindles and
'on the house'. I picked at the pastry of this for a while, and
grew a little calmer. Ruth and Nora now had their elbows
on the table, their heads on their chins, and were gazing at
me, their story forgotten. Annie, I could hear in the pauses
of the new song, was explaining to an incredulous Miss
Raymond: 'No, I swear, we had no idea. Arrived on
Florrie's doorstep with a black eye and a bunch of cresses,
and has never left it. Quite a dark horse ..."
Florence herself had her face turned my way, and her eyes
in shadow.
'You were really famous?' she asked me, as I found a
cigarette and lit it. 'And you really sang?'
'Sang, and danced. And acted, once, in a pantomime at the
Britannia.' I slapped my thigh. '"My lords, where is the
Prince, our master.'" She laughed, though I did not.
'How I wish I'd seen you! When was all this?'
I thought for a moment; then, 'Eighteen eighty-nine,' I said.
She stuck her lip out. 'Ah. Strikes all that year: no time for
the music hall. I think, one night, I might have stood
outside the Britannia, collecting money for the dockers ..."
She smiled. 'I should have liked a chocolate sovereign,
'Well, I should have made sure to throw you one She lifted
her glass to her lips, then thought of something else. 'What
happened,' she asked, 'to make you leave the theatre? If you
were doing so well, why did you stop? What did you do?'
I had admitted to some things; but I wasn't ready to admit to
them all. I pushed my plate towards her. 'Eat this pie for
me,' I said. Then I leaned past her and called down the
table. 'I say, Annie. Give me a cigarette, will you? This
one's a dud.'
'Well, since you're a celebrity. . .'
Florence ate the pie, helped out by Ruth. The singers at the
piano grew weary and hoarse, and went back to their
billiards. The gay girls in the stall next door got up, and
pinned on their hats: they were off, I suppose, to start work,
in the more ordinary publics of Wapping and Limehouse.
Nora yawned and, seeing her, we all yawned, and Florence
gave a sigh.
'Shall we go?' she asked. 'I think it must be very late.'
'It is almost midnight,' said Miss Raymond. We stood, to
button our coats on.
'I must just have a word with Mrs Swindles,' I said, 'to
thank her for my pie'; and when I had done that - and been
seized and saluted by half-a-dozen women on the way -I
wandered over to the billiard corner, and nodded to Jenny.
'Good-night to you,' I said. 'I'm glad you won your shilling.'
She took my hand and shook it. 'Good-night to you, Miss
King! The shilling was nothing compared to the pleasure of
having you here among us all.'
'Shall we see you here again, Nan?' her friend with the
tattoo called then. I nodded: 'I hope so.'
'But you must sing us a proper song next time, on your
own, in all your gentleman's toggery.'
'Oh yes, you must!'
I made no answer, only smiled, and took a step away from
them; then I thought of something, and beckoned to Jenny
'That picture,' I said quietly when she was close. 'Do you
think - would Mrs Swindles mind - do you think that I
might have it, for myself?' She put her hand to her pocket at
once, and drew out the creased and faded photograph, and
passed it to me.
'You take it,' she said; then she could not help but ask, a
little wonderingly, 'But have you none of your own? I
should've thought
'Between you and me,' I said, 'I left the business rather fast.
I lost a lot of stuff, and never cared to think of it till now.
This, however -' I gazed down at the photo. 'Well, it won't
hurt me, will it, to have this little reminder?'
'I hope it won't, indeed,' she answered kindly. Then she
looked past me, to Florence and the others. 'Your girl is awaiting for you,' she said with a smile. I put the picture in
the pocket of my coat.
'So she is,' I said absently. 'So she is.'
I joined my friends; we picked our way across the crowded
room, and hauled ourselves up the treacherous staircase into
the aching cold of the February night. Outside The Frigate
the road was dark and quiet; from Cable Street, however,
came a distant row. Like us, the customers of all the other
publics and gin palaces of the East End were beginning to
make their tipsy journeys home.
'Is there never trouble,' I said as we started to walk,
'between women at the Boy and local people, or roughs?'
Annie turned her collar up against the cold, then took Miss
Raymond's arm. 'Sometimes,' she said. 'Sometimes. Once
some boys dressed a pig in a bonnet, and tipped it down the
cellar stairs . . .'
'Yes,' said Nora. 'And once a woman got her head broken,
in a fight.'
'But this was over a girl,' said Florence, yawning, 'and it
was the girl's husband who hit her ..."
'The truth is,' Annie went on, 'there is such a mix round
these parts, what with Jews and Lascars, Germans and
Poles, socialists, anarchists, Salvationists . . . The people
are surprised at nothing.'
Even as she spoke, however, two fellows came out of a
house at the end of the street and, seeing us - seeing Annie
and Miss Raymond arm-in-arm, and Ruth with her hand in
Nora's pocket, and Florence and I bumping shoulders - gave
a mutter, and a sneer. One of them hawked as we passed by
him, and spat; the other cupped his hand at the fork of his
trousers, and shouted and laughed.
Annie looked round at me and gave a shrug. Miss
Raymond, to make us all smile, said, 'I wonder if any
woman will ever get her head broken on my account..."
'Only her heart, Miss Raymond,' I called gallantly and had
the satisfaction of seeing both Annie and Florence look my
way and frown.
Our group got smaller as we journeyed, for at Whitechapel
Ruth and Nora left us to pick up a cab to take them to their
flat in the City, and at Shoreditch, where Miss Raymond
lived, Annie looked at the toe of her boot and said, 'Well, I
think I shall just walk Miss Raymond to her door, since it's
so late; but you be sure to go on without me, and I'll catch
you up ..."
So then it was only Florence and me. We walked quickly,
because it was so cold, and Florence linked her hands
around my arm and held me very close. When we reached
the end of Quilter Street we stopped, as I had done on my
first journey there, to gaze for a moment at the dark and
eerie towers of Columbia Market, and to peer up at the
starless, moonless, fog- and smoke-choked London sky.
'I don't believe Annie will catch us up, after all,' murmured
Florence, looking back towards Shoreditch.
'No,' I said. 'I don't believe she will. . .'
The house, when we entered it, seemed hot and stuffy
enough; we soon grew chilled, however, once we had taken
our coats off and visited the privy. Ralph had left my
truckle-bed made up for me, and fixed a note to the mantel
to say there was a pot of tea for us inside the oven. There
was: it was as thick and brown as gravy, but we drank it
anyway - carrying our mugs back into the parlour, where
the air was warmest, and holding our hands before the last
few glowing coals in the ashy hearth.
The chairs had been pushed back to make room for my bed,
so now, rather shyly, we sat upon it, side by side: as we did
so, it moved a little on its castors, and Florence laughed.
There was a lamp turned low upon the table but, apart from
that, the room was very dim. We sat, and sipped our tea,
and gazed at the coals: now and then the ash would shift a
little in the grate, and the coal give a pop. 'How still it
seems,' said Florence quietly, 'after the Boy!'
I had drawn my knees to my chin - the bed was very low
upon the rug - and now turned my cheek upon them, and
smiled at her.
'I'm glad you took me there,' I said. 'I don't believe I've had
such a pleasant night since - well, I cannot say.'
'Can't you?'
'I can't. For half my pleasure, you know, was seeing you so
gay. . .'
She smiled, then yawned. 'Didn't you think Miss Raymond
very handsome?' she asked me.
'Pretty handsome.' Not as handsome as you, I wanted to
say, looking again at all the features I had once thought
plain. Oh Flo, there's no one as handsome as you!
But I didn't say it. And meanwhile, she had smiled. 'I
remember another girl Annie courted once. We let them
stay with us, because Annie was sharing with her sister
then. They slept in here, and Lilian and I were upstairs; and
they were so noisy, Mrs Monks came round to ask, "Was
someone poorly?" We had to say that Lily had the
toothache - when in fact, she had slept through it all, with
me beside her ..."
Her voice grew quiet. I put a hand to my necktie, to loosen
it: the idea of Flo lying at Lilian's side, stirred to a useless
passion, made me bitter; but, as usual, it also made me
rather warm. I said, 'Wasn't it hard, sharing a bed with
someone you loved like that?'
'It was terribly hard! But also rather marvellous.'
'Did you never - never kiss her?'
'I sometimes kissed her as she slept; I kissed her hair. Her
hair was handsome ..."
I had a very vivid memory, then, of lying beside Kitty, in
the days before we had ever made love. I said, in a slightly
different tone: 'Did you watch her face, as she lay dreaming
- and hope she dreamed of you?'
'I used to light a candle, just to do it!'
'Didn't you ache to touch her, as she lay at your side?'
'I thought I would touch her! I was frightened half to death
by it.'
'But didn't you sometimes touch yourself - and wish the
fingers were hers . . . ?'
'Oh, and then blush to do it! One time, I moved against her
in the bed and she said, still sleeping, "Jim!" - Jim was the
name of her man-friend. And then she said it again: "Jim!" and in a voice I'd never heard her use before. I didn't know
whether to weep about it, or what; but what I really wanted
-oh, Nance! what I really wanted was for her to sleep on,
like a girl in a trance, so I could touch her and have her
think me him, and call out again, in that voice, as I did it. . .
She drew in her breath. A coal in the hearth fell with a
rattle, but she did not turn to it, and neither did I. We only
stared: it was as if her words, that were so warm, had
melted our gazes the one into the other, and we could not
tear them free. I said, almost laughing: 'Jim! Jim!' She
blinked, and seemed to shiver; and then I shivered, too. And
then I said, simply, 'Oh, Flo . . .'
And then, as if through some occult power of its own, the
space between our lips seemed to grow small, and then to
vanish; and we were kissing. She lifted her hand to touch
the corner of my mouth; and then her fingers came between
our pressing lips - they tasted, still, of sugar. And then I
began to shake so hard I had to clench my fists and say to
myself, 'Stop shaking, can't you? She'll think you've never
been kissed before, at all!'
When I raised my hands to her, however, I found that she
was shaking just as badly; and when, after a moment, I
moved my fingers from her throat to the swell of her
breasts, she twitched like a fish - then smiled, and leaned
closer to me. 'Press me harder!' she said.
We fell back together upon the bed, then - it shifted another
inch across the carpet, on its wheels - and I undid the
buttons of her shirt and pressed my face to her bosom, and
sucked at one of her nipples, through the cotton of her
chemise, till the nipple grew hard and she began to stiffen
and pant. She put her hands to my head again, and lifted me
to where she could kiss me; I lay and moved upon her, and
felt her move beneath me, felt her breasts against my own,
till I knew I should come, or faint - but then she turned me,
and raised my skirt, and put her hand between my legs, and
stroked so slowly, so lightly, so teasingly, I hoped I might
never come at all...
At last, I felt her hand settle at the very wettest part of me,
and she breathed against my ear. 'Do you care for it,' she
murmured then, 'inside?' The question was such a gentle,
such a gallant one, I almost wept. 'Oh!' I said, and again she
kissed me; and after a moment I felt her move within me,
first with one finger, then with two, I guessed, then three ...
At last, after a second's pressure, she had her hand in me up
to the wrist. I think I called out - I think I shivered and
panted and called out, to feel the subtle twisting of her fist,
the curling and uncurling of her sweet fingers, beneath my
womb . . .
When I reached my crisis I felt a gush, and found that I had
wet her arm, with my spendings, from fingertip to elbow and that she had come, out of a kind of sympathy, and lay
weak and heavy against me, with her own skirts damp. She
drew her hand free - making me shiver anew - and I seized
it and held it, and pulled her face to me and kissed her; and
then we lay very quietly with our limbs pressed hard
together until, like cooling engines, we ceased our pulsings
and grew still.
When she rose at last, she cracked her head upon the
supper-table: we had jerked the truckle-bed from one side
of the parlour to the other, and not noticed. She laughed.
We shuffled off our clothes, and she turned down the lamp,
and we lay beneath the blankets in our damp petticoats.
When she fell asleep I put my hands to her cheeks, and
kissed her brow where she had bruised it.
I woke to find it still the night, but a little lighter. I didn't
know what had disturbed me; when I looked about me,
however, I saw that Florence had raised herself a little on
the pillow, and was gazing at me, apparently quite wide
awake. I reached for her hand again, and kissed it, and felt
my insides give a kind of lurch. She smiled; but there was a
darkness to the smile, that made me feel chill.
'What's up?' I murmured. She stroked my hair.
'I was only thinking ..."
'What?' She wouldn't answer. I propped myself up beside
her, quite wide awake myself, now. 'What, Florence?'
'I was looking at you in the darkness: I have never seen you
sleep before. You looked like quite a stranger to me. And
then I thought, you are a stranger to me . . .'
'A stranger? How can you say that? You have lived with
me, for more than a year!'
'And last night,' she answered, 'for the first time, I
discovered you were once a music-hall star! How can you
keep a thing like that a secret? Why would you want to?
What else have you done that I don't know about? You
might have been in prison, for all I know. You might have
been mad. You might have been gay!'
I bit my lip; but then, remembering how kind she had been
about the gay girls at the Boy, I said quickly, 'Flo, I did go
on the streets one time. You won't hate me for it, will you?'
She took her hand away at once. 'On the streets! My God!
Of course I won't hate you, but - oh, Nance! To think of you
as one of them sad girls ..."
'I wasn't sad,' I said, and looked away. 'And to tell the truth
I - well, I wasn't quite a girl, either.'
'Not a girl?' she said. 'What can you mean?'
I scraped at the silken edge of the blanket with my nail.
Should I tell my story - the story I had kept so close, so
long? I saw her hand upon the sheet and, as my stomach
gave another slide, I remembered again her fingers, easing
me open, and her fist inside me, slowly turning . . .
I took a breath. 'Have you ever,' I said, 'been to Whitstable .
. . ?'
Once I began it, I found I could not stop. I told her
everything - about my life as an oyster-girl; about Kitty
Butler, whom I had left my family for, and who had left me,
in her turn, for Walter Bliss. I told her about my madness;
my masquerade; my life with Mrs Milne and Grace, in
Green Street, where she had seen me first. And finally I told
her about Diana, and Felicity Place, and Zena.
When I stopped talking it was almost light; the parlour
seemed chillier than ever. Through all my long narrative
Florence had been silent; she had begun to frown when I
had reached the part about the renting, and after that the
frown had deepened. Now it was very deep indeed.
'You wanted to know,' I said, 'what secrets I had ..."
She looked away. 'I didn't think there would be quite so
'You said you wouldn't hate me, over the renting.'
'It's so hard to think you did those things - for fun. And -oh,
Nance, for such a cruel kind of fun!'
'It was very long ago.'
'To think of all the people you have known - and yet you
have no friends.'
'I left them all behind me.'
'Your family. You said when you came here that your
family had thrown you over. But it was you threw them
over! How they must wonder over you! Do you never think
of them?'
'Sometimes, sometimes.'
'And the lady who was so fond of you, in Green Street. Do
you never think to call on her, and her daughter?'
'They have moved away; and I tried to find them. And
anyway, I was ashamed, because I had neglected them ..."
'Neglected them, for that - what was her name?'
'Diana. Did you care for her, then, so very much?'
'Care for her?' I propped myself upon my elbow. 'I hated
her! She was a kind of devil! I have told you -'
'And yet, you stayed with her, so long ..."
I felt suffocated, all at once, by my own story, and by the
meanings she was teasing from it. 'I can't explain,' I said.
'She had a power over me. She was rich. She had - things.'
'First you told me it was a gent that threw you out. Then
you said it was a lady. I thought, that you had lost some girl
'I had lost a girl; but it was Kitty, and it was years before.'
'And Diana was rich; and blacked your eye and cut you, and
you let her. And then she chucked you out because you kissed her maid.' Her voice had grown steadily harder.
'What happened to her?’
'I don't know. I don't know!'
We lay a while in silence, and the bed seemed suddenly
terribly slim. Florence gazed at the lightening square of
curtain at the window, and I watched her, miserably. When
she put a finger to her mouth to chew at a nail. I lifted my
hand to stop her; but she pushed my arm away, and made to
'Where are you going?' I asked.
'Upstairs. I want to sit a little while and think.'
'No!' I cried; and as I cried it, Cyril, in his crib upstairs,
woke up, and began to call out for his mother. I reached for
Florence and seized her wrist and, all heedless of the baby's
cries, pulled her back and pressed her to the bed. 'I know
what you mean to do,' I said. 'You mean to go and think of
'I cannot help but think of Lilian!' she answered, stricken. 'I
cannot help it. And you - you're just the same, only I never
knew it. Don't say - don't say you weren't thinking of her, of
Kitty, last night, as you kissed me!'
I took a breath - but then I hesitated. For it was true, I
couldn't say it. It was Kitty I had kissed first and hardest;
and it was as if I had had the shape or the colour or the taste
of her kisses upon my lips, ever after. Not the spendings
and the tears of all the weeping sods of Soho, nor the wine
and the damp caresses of Felicity Place, had quite washed
those kisses away. I had always known it - but it had never
matter with Diana, nor with Zena. Why should it matter
with Florence?
What should it matter who she thought of, as she kissed
'All I know is,' I said at last, 'if we had not lain together last
night, we would have died of it. And if you tell me now we
shall never lie together again, after that, that was so
marvellous -!'
I still held her to the bed, and Cyril still cried; but now, by
some miracle, his cries began to die - and Florence, in her
turn, grew slack in my arms, and turned her head against
'I liked to think of you,' she said quietly, 'as Venus in a seashell. I never thought of the sweethearts you had, before
you came here ..."
'Why must you think of them now?'
'Because you do! Suppose Kitty were to show up again, and
ask you back to her?'
'She won't. Kitty's gone, Flo. Like Lilian. Believe me,
there's more chance of her coming back!' I began to smile.
'And if she does, you can go to her, and I won't say a word.
And if Kitty comes for me, you can do similar. And then, I
suppose, we shall have our paradises - and will be able to
wave to one another from our separate clouds. But till then
- till then, Flo, can't we go on kissing, and just be glad?'
As lovers' vows go, this one was, I suppose, rather curious;
but we were girls with curious histories - girls with pasts
like boxes with ill-fitting lids. We must bear them, but bear
them carefully. We should do very well, I thought, as
Florence sighed and raised her hand to me at last; we
should do very well, so long as the boxes stayed unspilled.
Chapter 19
That afternoon, we put the truckle-bed back in the attic - I
think its castors had got permanently skewed - and I moved
my night-things to Florence's room, and put my gown
beneath her pillow. We did it while Ralph was out; and
when he came home, and gazed at the place where the bed
had used to be propped, and then at us, with our blushes
and our shadowy eyes and swollen lips, he blinked about a
dozen times, and swallowed, and sat and raised an issue of
Justice before his face; but when he rose to go to his room
that night, he kissed me very warmly. I looked at Florence.
'Why doesn't Ralph have a sweetheart?' I said, when he had
left us. She shrugged.
'Girls don't seem to care for him. Every torn friend of mine
is half in love with him, but regular girls - well! He goes for
dainty ones; the last one gave him up for the sake of a
'Poor Ralph,' I said. Then: 'He is remarkably forbearing on
the matter of your - leanings. Don't you think?'
She came and sat on the arm of my chair. 'He's had a long
time to get used to them,' she said.
'Have you always had them, then?'
'Well, I suppose there was always a girl or two, somewhere
about the place. Mother never was able to figure it out.
Janet don't care - she says it leaves more chaps for her. But
Frank' -this was the older brother, who came visiting from
time to time with his family - 'Frank never liked to see girls
calling for me, in the old days: he slapped me over it once,
I've never forgotten it. He wouldn't be at all tickled to see
you here, now.'
'We can pretend it's otherwise, if you like,' I said. 'We can
bring the truckle-bed back, and pretend -'
She leaned away from me as if I had sworn at her. 'Pretend?
Pretend, and in my own house? If Frank doesn't like my
habits, he can stop visiting. Him, and anyone else with a
similar idea. Would you have people think we were
'No, no. It was only that Kitty -'
'Oh, Kitty! Kitty! The more you tell me about that woman,
the less I care for her. To think she kept you cramped and
guilty for so long, when you might have been off, having
your bit of fun as a real gay torn ..."
'I wouldn't have been a torn at all,' I said, more hurt by her
words than I was willing to show, 'if it hadn't been for Kitty
She looked me over: I had my trousers on. 'Now that,' she
said, 'I cannot believe. You would have met some woman,
sooner or later.'
'When I was married to Freddy, probably, and had a dozen
kids. I should certainly never have met you.'
'Well, then I suppose I have something to thank Kitty Butler
The name, when spoken aloud like that, still grated on my
nerves a little and set them tingling; I think she knew it. But
now I said lightly, 'You do. Be sure you remember it. In
fact, I have something that will remind you . . .' I went to
the pocket of my coat, and drew out the photograph of Kitty
and me, that I had got from Jenny, at the Boy in the Boat;
and I carried it to the bookcase and set it there, beneath the
other portraits. 'Your Lilian,' I said, 'may have got a thrill
from gazing at Eleanor Marx. Sensible girls used to put
pictures of me on their bedroom walls, five years ago.'
'Stop boasting,' she answered. 'All this talk about the music
hall. I've never heard you sing a song to me.'
She had taken my place in the armchair, and now I went
and nudged at her knees with my own. 'Tommy,' I sang - it
was an old song of W. B. Fair's - 'Tommy, make room for
your uncle.'
She laughed. 'Is that a song you used to sing with Kitty?'
'I should say not! Kitty would have been too afraid, in case
there was a real tom in the crowd who got the joke and
thought we meant it.'
'Sing me one of the ones you sang with Kitty, then.'
'Well..." I was not sure I liked the idea; but I sang her a few
lines of our song about the sovereigns - strolling about the
parlour as I did so, and kicking my moleskinned legs. When
I finished, she shook her head.
'How proud she should have been of you! I she said softly.
'If I'd been her -' She didn't finish. She only rose, and came
to me, and drew back the shirt where it flapped beneath my
throat, and kissed the flesh that showed there, until I
She had seemed chaste as a plaster saint to me, once; she
had seemed plain. But she was not chaste now - she was
marvellously bold and frank and ready; and the boldness
made her bonny, made her gleam, like a kind of polish. I
could not look at her and not want to touch her. I could not
see the shine upon her pink lips, without wanting to step to
her and press my mouth to it; I couldn't look at her hand as
it lay limp upon some table-top, or held a pen, or carried a
cup, or did any kind of ordinary business, without longing
to take it in my own and kiss the knuckles or put my tongue
to the palm, or press it to the fork at my trousers. I would
stand beside her in a crowded room and feel the hairs lift on
my arms - and see her own flesh pimple, and her cheeks
grow warm, and know she ached for me, to match my
aching; but she would take a dreadful satisfaction, too, in
lengthening the visits of her Mends - in handing out a
second cup of tea, and then a third -and all while I looked
on, tortured and damp.
'You made me wait, for two years and a half,' she said to
me once; I had followed her into the kitchen, and put my
shaking arms about her as she lifted a kettle to the stove. 'It
won't hurt you, to wait an hour till the parlour clears ..." But
when she said a similar thing another night, I touched her
through the folds of her skirt until her voice grew weak and then she led me into the pantry, and put a broom across
the door, and we caressed amongst the packets of flour and
tins of treacle while the kettle whistled and the kitchen
grew woolly with steam, and Annie called out from the
parlour, What were we doing? The fact was, we had both
gone kissless for so long that, having once begun to kiss
again, we could not stop. Our boldness made us marvel.
'I had you down for one of those terrible grudging girls,' she
said to me one night, a week or two after our visit to the
Boy. 'One of those dry-rub-it-on-the-hip-don't-touch-me
sorts . . .' 'Are there such girls?' I asked her. She coloured.
'Well, I have lain with one or two ..." The thought that she
had lain with different girls - with so many girls that she
could put them into categories, like breeds of fish - was
wonderfully astonishing and stirring. I put my hand upon
her - we were lying together, naked despite the cold,
because we had bathed in a steaming tub and were still
warm and prickling from it - and stroked her, from the
hollow at her throat to the hollow of her groin; then I
stroked her again, and felt her shiver.
'Who would ever have thought that I should touch you so,
and talk to you so!' I asked her - whispering, because Cyril
lay beside us, asleep in his crib. 'I was sure you would
prove prim and awkward. I was sure you would be shy.
Indeed, I didn't see how you could fail to be, being so
political and good as you are!'
She laughed. 'It ain't the Salvation Army, you know,' she
answered, 'socialism.'
'Well, maybe ..."
We said nothing more, then; only kissed and murmured.
But the next night she produced a book, and had me read it.
It was Towards Democracy, the poem by Edward
Carpenter; and as I turned the pages, with Florence warm
beside me, I found myself growing damp.
'Did you used to look at this with Lilian?' I asked her.
She nodded. 'She used to like to have me read it to her, as
we lay in bed. She couldn't have known, I suppose, that it
was sometimes hard to do it..."
Perhaps she did know, I thought - and the idea made me
damper. I handed the book to her. 'Read it to me, now,' I
'You have already read it.'
'Read me the bits you used to read to her . . .'
She hesitated, then did so; and as she murmured, I put my
hand between her legs and touched her, and her voice grew
less steady, the more firmly I stroked.
There are books written especially for this sort of thing,' I
said to her, thinking back to the many times I had lain doing
something similar with Diana - on the very same nights,
probably, that Florence had lain squirming next to Lilian.
'Wouldn't you rather I bought you a book like that? I can't
believe Mr Carpenter really intended his poem to be
enjoyed in such a way.'
She put her lips against my throat. 'Oh, I think Mr
Carpenter would approve all right.'
She had let the book fall on to her breast. Now I pushed it
aside, and rolled upon her.
'And this,' I said, moving my hips, 'is really contributing to
the social revolution?'
'Oh, yes!'
I wriggled lower. 'And this, too?'
'Oh, certainly!'
I slid beneath the sheet. 'And how about this?'
'Lord,' I said a little later. 'To think I have been part of the
socialist conspiracy all these years, and never knew it till
now . . .'
We kept Towards Democracy beside the bed permanently,
after that; and just as Florence would sometimes say to me,
when the house was quiet, 'Sing me a song, in your
moleskins, Uncle . . .', so I would occasionally lean to
whisper to her, over supper or as we walked side by side:
'Shall we be democratic tonight, Flo . . . ?' Of course, there
were certain songs - 'Sweethearts and Wives' was one of
them - I would never have sung for her. And Leaves of
Grass, I noticed, stayed downstairs, on the shelf beneath the
photographs of Eleanor Marx and Kitty. I didn't mind it.
How could I mind it? We had struck a kind of bargain. We
had fixed to kiss for ever. We had never once said, I love
'Isn't it marvellous to be in love, in spring-time?' Annie
asked us one evening in April: she and Miss Raymond were
sweethearts now, and spent long hours in our parlour,
sighing over one another's charms. 'I went visiting a factory
today, and it was the grimmest, most broken-down old
place you ever saw. But I came out into its yard and there
was a piece of pussywillow growing there - just a piece of
common old pussy-willow, but with a bit of yellow sun on
it, and it looked so exactly like my dear Emma I thought for
a moment I would fall down and kiss it, and weep.'
Florence snorted. They should never have let women into
the civil service, I said it all along. Weeping over pussy
willow? I never heard such rubbish in my life; I really
wonder, sometimes, how Emma can bear you. If I heard
Nancy likening me to a sprig of catkins, I should be sick.'
'Oh, for shame! Nancy, have you never seen Florrie's face
in a chrysanthemum, or a rose?'
'Never,' I said. 'Though there was a flounder for sale on a
fishmonger's barrow, in Whitechapel yesterday, and the
likeness was quite uncanny. I very nearly brought it home
Annie took Miss Raymond's hand in hers, and gazed at us
in wonder. 'I swear,' she said, 'you two are the most
unsentimental sweethearts I've ever known.'
'We are too sensible for sentiment, aren't we, Nance?'
'Too busy, more like,' I said, with a yawn.
Florence grew sheepish. 'And, well, we shall be even busier
before long, I'm afraid. For, you know, I promised Mrs
Macey at the Guild that I would help with the organising of
the Workers' Rally -'
'Oh, Florence!' I cried, 'you didn't!'
'What's this?' asked Miss Raymond.
'Some wretched scheme,' I said, 'dreamed up by all the
guilds and unions of East London, to fill Victoria Park with
socialists -'
'A demonstration,' interrupted Florence. 'A wonderful thing,
if it works. It is to be at the end of May. There will be tents,
and speeches and stalls, and a pageant; we hope to get
visitors and speakers from all over Britain - and some,
even, from Germany and France.'
'And now you have said you will help to run it. Which
means,' I said bitterly to Miss Raymond, 'that she will have
taken far more duties upon herself than she should have,
and so, as usual, I shall be obliged to help her - to sit up late
at night writing letters to the president of the Hoxton Fur
and Feather Dressers' Union, or the Wapping Small Metal
Workers' Society. And all at a time -' All at a time, I wanted
to say, when I longed only to tip her satchel of papers into
the fire, and lie kissing her before its blaze.
I thought Florence looked at me a little sadly then. She said,
'You needn't help, if you don't care to.'
'Needn't help?' I cried. 'In this house?'
And it was just as I had supposed. Florence had committed
herself to a thousand duties, and I, to stop her working
herself into a fit, took on half of them - wrote letters and
figured sums at her direction, and delivered bags of posters
and pamphlets to grubby union offices, and visited
carpenters' shops, and sat sewing tablecloths and flags, and
costumes for the workers' pageant. Our house in Quilter
Street grew quite dusty again; our suppers became ever
more hasty and under-prepared — I had no time for stewing
oysters now, but served them raw, and we swallowed them
as we worked. Half of the flags I sewed, half of the letters
Florence wrote, were stained at the edges with liquor, and
spotted with grease.
Even Ralph was involved in it. He had been asked, as
secretary of his union, to write a little address for the day
itself, and deliver it - in between the grander speeches before the crowd. The title of the address was to be 'Why
Socialism?', and the composing and rehearsing of this threw
Ralph - who was no very keen public speaker - into a fever.
He would sit at the supper-table for hours at a time, writing
until his arm grew sore — or more often gazing bleakly at
the empty page before him, then dashing to the bookcase to
check a reference in some political tract, and cursing to find
it lent out or lost: 'What has happened to The White Slaves
of England!? Who has borrowed my Sidney Webb? And
where the blazes is Towards Democracy?'
Florence and I would gaze at him and shake our heads.
'Give the thing up,' we would say, 'if you don't want to do
it, or feel you can't. No one will mind,' But Ralph would
always stiffen and answer, 'No, no. It is for the sake of the
union. I almost have it.' Then he would frown at his page
again, and chew on his beard; and I would see him
imagining himself standing before a crowd of staring faces,
and he would sweat and start to tremble.
But here, at least, I felt I could help. 'Let me hear you read a
bit of your speech,' I said to him one night when Florence
was out. 'Don't forget I was an actress of sorts, once. It's all
the same, you know, whether it's a stage or a platform.'
That's true,' he said, struck by the idea. Then he flapped his
sheets. 'But I am rather shy of reading it out before you.'
'Ralph! If you are shy with me, in our parlour, what will
you be like before five hundred people, in Victoria Park?'
The thought set him biting at his beard again; but he held
his speech before him as requested, stood before the
curtained window, and cleared his throat.
'"Why Socialism?'" he began. I jumped to my feet.
'Well, that is hopeless, for a start. You can't mumble into
your hands like that, and expect the folk in the gallery - I
mean, at the back of the tent - to be able to hear you.'
'You are rather harsh, Nancy,' he said.
'You will thank me for it, in the end. Now, straighten your
back and lift up your head, and start again. And talk from
here' -I touched the buckle on his trousers, and he twitched
-'not from your throat. Go on.'
'"Why Socialism?" he read again, in a deep, unnatural
voice. 'That is the question I have been invited to discuss
with you this afternoon. "Why Socialism?" I shall keep my
answer rather brief.'
I sucked at my lip. 'Some joker is sure to shout "Hurrah" at
that point, you know.'
'Not really, Nance?'
'You may count on it. But you mustn't let it unsettle you, or
you'll be done for. Go on, now, let's hear the rest.'
He read the speech - it was a matter of two or three pages,
no more - and I listened, and frowned.
'You will talk into the paper,' I said at the end. 'No one will
be able to hear. They will get bored, and start talking
amongst themselves. I have seen it happen a hundred times.'
'But I must read the words,' he said. I shook my head.
'You shall have to learn them, there's nothing else for it.
You shall have to get the piece by heart.'
'What? All this?' He gazed miserably at the pages.
'A day or two's work,' I said. Then I put my hand upon his
arm. 'It is either that, Ralph, or we shall have to put you in a
funny suit...'
And so through the whole of April and half of May - for of
course it took considerably longer than one or two days for
him to learn even so much as a quarter of the words - Ralph
and I laboured together over his little speech, forcing the
phrases into his head and finding all sorts of tricks to make
them stay there. I would sit like a prompter, the papers in
my hand, Ralph declaiming before me in an effortful
monotone; I would have him recite to me over breakfast, or
as we washed the dishes, or sat together beside the fire; I
would stand outside the kitchen door and have him shout
the words out to me as he lay in his bath.
'How many times have you heard economists say that
England is the richest nation in the world? If you were to
ask them what they meant by that, they would answer . . .
they would answer
'Ralph! They would answer: Look about you They would answer: Look about you, at our great palaces
and public buildings, our country houses and our . . .'
'Our factories -'
'Our factories and our ..."
'Our Empire, Ralph!'
In time, of course, I learned the whole wretched speech
myself, and could leave the sheets aside; but in time, too,
Ralph managed more or less to con it, and was able to
stumble through from start to finish, without any prompts at
all, and sounding almost sensible.
Meanwhile, the day of the rally drew nearer, our hours
grew ever fuller and our tasks more rushed; and I - despite
my grumbles - could not help but grow a little eager to see
the thing take place at last, and was as excited and as
fretful, almost, as Florence herself.
If only it does not rain!' she said, gazing bleakly at the sky
from our bedroom window, the night before the appointed
Sunday. 'If it rains, we shall have to have the pageant in a
tent; and nobody has rehearsed that. Or suppose it
thunders? Then no one will hear the speakers.'
'It won't rain,' I said. 'Stop fussing.' But she continued to
frown at the sky; and at length I joined her at the window,
and gazed at the clouds myself.
'If only it doesn't rain,' she said again; and to distract her I
breathed upon the glass and wrote our initials in the mist,
with a fingernail: N.A., F.B., 1895 & Always. I put a heart
around them and, piercing the heart, an arrow.
It did not rain that Sunday; indeed, the skies above Bethnal
Green were so blue and clear you might have been forgiven
for thinking God Himself a socialist, the brilliant sun a kind
of heavenly blessing. At Quilter Street we all rose early,
and bathed and washed our hair and dressed - it was like
getting ready for a wedding. I very gallantly decided not to
risk my trousers on the crowd - socialists having such a
poor name already; instead, I wore a suit of navy-blue, with
scarlet frog-ging on the coat, and a matching necktie, and a
billycock hat. As ladies' outfits went, it was a smart one;
even so, I found myself twitching irritably at my skirts as I
paced the parlour waiting for Flo - and was soon joined by
Ralph, who was dressed up stiff as a clerk, and kept pulling
at his collar where it chafed against his throat.
Florence herself wore the damson-coloured suit I so
admired: I bought a flower for her, on the walk from
Bethnal Green, and pinned it to her jacket. It was a daisy,
big as a fist, and shone when the sun struck it, like a lamp.
'You shall certainly,' she said to me, 'not lose me in that.'
Victoria Park itself we found transformed. Workmen had
been busy raising tents and platforms and stalls all through
the weekend, and there were strings of flags and banners at
every tree, and stall-holders already setting up their tables
and displays. Florence had about a dozen lists of duties
upon her, and now produced them, then went off to find
Mrs Macey of the Guild. Ralph and I picked our way
through all the drooping bunting, to find the tent he was to
speak in. It turned out to be the biggest of the lot: There'll
be room for seven hundred people in here, at the least!' the
workmen told us cheerfully, as they filled it with chairs.
That made it greater than some of the halls I had used to
play at; and when Ralph heard it, he turned very pale, and
retired to a bench for another reading of his speech.
After that, I took Cyril and wandered about, gazing at
whatever caught my eye and stopping to chat with girls I
recognised, lending a hand with fluttering tablecloths,
splitting boxes, awkward rosettes. There were speakers and
exhibitions there, it seemed to me, for every queer or
philanthropic society and cause you could imagine - trade
unionists and suffragists, Christian Scientists, Christian
Socialists, Jewish Socialists, Irish Socialists, anarchists,
vegetarians . . . 'Ain't this marvellous?' I heard as I walked,
from friends and strangers alike. 'Did you ever see a sight
like this?' One woman gave me a sash of satin to pin about
my hat; I fastened it to Cyril's frock instead, and when
people saw him in the colours of the SDF, they smiled and
shook his hand: 'Hallo, comrade!'
'Won't he remember this day, when he's grown!' said a man,
as he touched Cyril's head and gave him a penny. Then he
straightened, and studied the scene about him with shining
eyes. 'We'll all remember this day, all right..."
I knew he was right. I had grumbled about it to Annie and
Miss Raymond, and I had sat sewing flags and banners, not
caring if the stitches were crooked or the satin got stained;
but as the park began to fill, and the sun grew ever more
brilliant and all the colours more gay, I found myself gazing
about me in a kind of wonder. 'If five thousand people
come,' Florence had said the night before, 'we shall be
happy . . .': but I thought, as I walked about, then moved to
a rise of ground to lift Cyril to my shoulders and put my
hand to my brow and survey the field, that there must be ten
times that number there - all the ordinary people of East
London, it seemed to be, all jumbled together in Victoria
Park, good-natured and careless and dressed in their best.
They came, I suppose, as much for the sun as for the
socialism. They spread blankets between the stalls and
tents, and ate their lunches there, and lay with their
sweethearts and babies, and threw sticks for their dogs. But
I saw them listening, too, to the speakers at the stalls sometimes nodding, sometimes arguing, sometimes
frowning over a pamphlet, or placing their name upon a list,
or fishing pennies from their pockets, to give to some
As I stood and looked, I saw a woman pass by with children
at her skirts - it was Mrs Fryer, the poor needlewoman
whom Florence and I had visited in the autumn. When I
called to her, she came smiling up to me. 'I got my place in
the union, after all,' she said. 'Your pal persuaded me to it. .
.' We stood chatting for a moment - her children had toffeeapples, and held one up for Cyril to lick. Then there came a
blast of music, and people shuffled and murmured and
craned their necks, and we stood together, lifting the
children high, and watched the Workers' Pageant - a
procession of men and women dressed in all the costumes
of all the trades, carrying union banners and flags and
flowers. It took quite half-an-hour for the pageant to pass;
and when it had done so the people put their fingers to their
lips, and whistled and cheered and clapped. Mrs Fryer
wept, because her neighbour's eldest daughter was walking
in the line, dressed as a match-girl.
I wished that Florence were with me, and kept looking for
her damson-coloured suit and her daisy, but - though I saw
just about every other unionist who had ever passed through
our parlour -I did not see her once. When I found her at last,
she was in the speakers' tent: she had spent all afternoon
there, listening to the lectures. 'Have you heard?' she said
when she saw me. 'There's a rumour that Eleanor Marx is
coming: I daren't leave the tent, for fear of missing her
address!' It turned out she had eaten nothing since
breakfast: I went off to buy her a packet of whelks from a
stall, and a cup of ginger ale. When I returned I found
Ralph beside her, sweating, still pulling at his collar, and
paler than ever. Every seat in the tent was taken, and there
were people standing, besides. It was stiflingly hot, and the
heat was making everyone restless and cross. One speaker
had recently made an unpopular point, and been booed
from the platform.
'They won't boo you, Ralph,' I said; but when I saw that he
was really miserable, I took his arm, left the baby with
Florence, and led him from his seat into the cooler air
outside. 'Come on, come and have a fag with me. You
mustn't let the crowd see you are nervous.'
We stood just beyond a flap of the tent - a couple of men
from Ralph's factory went by, and raised their hands to us and I lit us two cigarettes. Ralph's fingers shook as he held
his, and he almost dropped it, then smiled apologetically:
'What a fool you must think me.'
'Not at all! I remember how frightened I was on my first
night; I thought I would be sick.'
'I thought I would be sick, a moment ago.'
'Everybody thinks it, and no one is' This wasn't quite true: I
had often seen nervous artistes bent over bowls and firebuckets at the side of the stage; but I did not, of course, tell
Ralph this.
'Did you ever play before a crowd that was rather rough,
Nance?' he asked me now.
'What?' I said. 'At one hall - Deacon's, in Islington - there
was a poor comedian on before us and some fellows
jumped on to the stage and held him upside-down over the
footlights, trying to set his hair on fire.' Ralph blinked two
or three times on hearing that, then looked hastily back into
the tent, as if to make sure there were no naked flames
about, over which an unfriendly audience might take it into
their heads to try and tip him. Then he looked queasily at
his cigarette, and threw it down.
'I think, if it's all the same to you,' he said, 'I shall just go
off and have another run through my address.' And before I
could open my mouth to persuade him otherwise he had
slipped away, and left me smoking on my own.
I did not mind: it was still pleasanter outside the tent than in
it. I put the cigarette between my lips and folded my arms,
and leaned back a little against the canvas. Then I closed
my eyes, and let the sun fall full upon my face; then I took
the fag away, and gave a yawn.
And as I did so, there came a woman's voice at my
shoulder, that made me jump.
'Well! Of all the gals to see at a working people's rally, I
should've said that Nancy King would be about the last of
I opened my eyes, let my cigarette fall, and turned to the
woman and gave a cry.
'Zena! Oh! And is it really you?'
It was indeed Zena: she stood beside me plumper and even
handsomer than when I had seen her last, and clad in a
scarlet coat and a bracelet with charms on. 'Zena!' I said
again. 'Oh! How good it is to see you.' I took her hand and
pressed it, and she laughed.
'I've met just about every gal I ever knew here, today,' she
said. 'And then I saw this other one, standing up against a
tent flap with a fag at her lip and I thought, Lord, but don't
she look like old Nan King? What a lark, if it should be her,
after all this time - and here, of all places! And I stepped up
a bit closer, and then I saw that your hair was all clipped,
and I knew it was you, for sure.'
'Oh, Zena! I was certain I should never hear from you
again.' She looked a little sheepish at that; and then,
remembering, I pressed her hand even harder and said in
quite a different tone: 'What a nerve you've got, though!
After leaving me in such a state, that time in Kilburn! I
thought I should die.'
Now she made a show of tossing her head. 'Well! You done
me very brown, you know, over that money.'
'I do know it. What a little beast I was! I suppose, you never
did get to the colonies . . .'
She wrinkled her nose. 'My friend who went to Australia
came back. She said the place was full of great rough
fellows, and they don't want landladies; what they want is,
wives. I changed my mind about it after that. I'm happy
enough, after all, in Stepney.'
'You're in Stepney now? But then we're almost neighbours!
I live in Bethnal Green. With my sweetheart. Look, she's
over there.' I put my hand on her shoulder and pointed into
the crowded tent. 'The one near the stage, with the baby on
her arm.
'What,' she said, 'not Flo Banner, that works at the gals'
'You don't mean, you know her?'
'I have a couple of pals what've lived at Freemantle House,
and they are always talking about how marvellous Flo
Banner is! You know, I suppose, that half the gals there are
mad in love with her . ..'
'With Florence? Are you sure?"
'I'll say!' We looked into the tent together again. Florence
was on her feet now, and waving a paper at the speaker at
the stage. Zena laughed. 'Fancy you and Flo Banner!' she
said. 'I'm sure, she don't take no nonsense from you.'
'You're right,' I answered, still gazing at Florence, still
marvelling at what Zena had told me. 'She don't.'
We moved into the sunshine again. 'And how about you?' I
asked her then. 'I bet you have a girl, don't you?'
'I do,' she said shyly. The fact is, indeed, I have a couple of
'em, and can't quite decide between the two ..."
'Two! My God!' I imagined having two sweethearts like
Florence: the thought made me ache and start yawning.
'One of them is about here, somewhere,' Zena was saying.
'She is part of a union and - There she is! Maud!' At her cry,
a girl in a blue-and-brown checked coat looked round, and
wandered over. Zena took her arm, and the girl smiled.
This is Miss Skinner," said Zena to me; then, to her
sweetheart: 'Maud, this is Nan King, the singer from the
halls.' Miss Skinner - who was about nineteen or so, and
would still have been in short skirts on the night I took my
last bow at the Brit - gazed politely at me, and offered me
her hand. Zena went on then, 'Miss King lives with Flo
Banner -' and at once, Miss Skinner's grip tightened, and
her eyes grew wide.
'Flo Banner?' she said, in just the tone that Zena had. 'Flo
Banner, of the Guild? Oh! I wonder - I've got the
programme of the day about me somewhere - do you think,
Miss King, you might get her to sign it for me?'
'Sign it!' I said. She had produced a paper giving the
running-order of the speeches and the layout of the stalls,
and held it to me, trembling. Florence's name, I now saw,
was printed, along with one or two others, amongst the list
of organisers. 'Well,' I said. 'Well. You might ask her
yourself, you know: she's only over there -'
'Oh, I couldn't!' answered Miss Skinner. 'I should be too shy
. . .'
In the end I took the paper, and said I would do what I
could; and Miss Skinner looked desperately grateful, then
went off to tell her friends that she had met me.
'She's a bit romantic, ain't she? said Zena, wrinkling her
nose again. 'I might throw her over for the other one, yet..."
I shook my head, looked at the paper another time, then
placed it in the pocket of my skirt.
We chatted for another few moments; and then Zena said,
'And so, you're quite happy, are you, in Bethnal Green? It
ain't quite what you was used to in the old days ..."
I pulled a face. 'I hate to think of those days, Zena. I'm all
changed now.'
'I dare say. That Diana Lethaby, though - well! You've seen
her, of course?'
'Diana?' I shook my head. 'Not likely! Did you think I'd go
back to Felicity Place, after that dam' party . . . ?'
Zena stared at me. 'But, don't tell me you didn't know it?
Diana is here-!'
'Here? She can't be!'
'She is! I tell you, all the world is here this afternoon - and
her amongst 'em. She is over at the table of some paper or
magazine. I saw her, and nearly fainted dead away!'
'My God.' Diana, here! The thought was awful - and yet...
Well, they do say that old dogs never forget the tricks their
mistresses beat into them: I had felt myself stir, faintly, at
the first mention of her hateful name. I looked once into the
tent, and saw Florence, on her feet again and still shaking
her arm at the platform; then I turned to Zena. 'Will you
show me,' I asked, 'where?'
She gave me one swift warning sort of look; then she took
my arm and led me through the crowd, towards the bathing
lake, and came to a halt behind a bush.
'Look, there,' she said in a low voice. 'Near that table. D'you
see her?' I nodded. She was standing beside a display - it
was for the women's journal Shafts, that she sometimes
helped with the running of - and was talking with another
lady, a lady I thought might be one of the ones who had
come dressed as Sappho to the fancy-dress ball. The lady
had a Suffrage sash across her bosom. Diana was clad in
grey, and her hat had a veil to it - though this was, at the
moment, turned up. She was as haughty and as handsome
as ever. I gazed at her and had a very vivid memory - of
myself, sprawled beside her with pearls about my hips; of
the bed seeming to tilt; of the chafing of the leather as she
straddled me and rocked . . .
'What do you think she would do,' I said to Zena, 'if I went
'You ain't going to try it!'
'Why not? I'm quite, you know, out of her power now.' But
even as I said it, I looked at her and felt that doggishness
come over me again - or doggishness, perhaps, is not the
term for it. It was like she was some music-hall mesmerist,
and I a blinking girl, all ready to make a mockery of
myself, before the crowd, at her request. . .
Zena said, 'Well I ain't going nowhere near her . . .'; but I
didn't listen. I glanced quickly again at the speakers' tent,
then I stepped out from behind the bush and made my way
towards the stall - straightening the knot in my necktie, as I
did so. I was within about twenty yards of her, and had
lifted a hand to remove my hat, when she turned, and
seemed to raise her eyes to mine. Her gaze grew hard,
sardonic and lustful all at once, just as I remembered it; and
my heart twitched in my breast - in fright, I think! - as if a
hook had caught it.
But then she opened her mouth to speak; and what she said
was: 'Reggie! Reggie, here!'
That made me stumble. From somewhere close behind me
came a gruffer answering cry - 'All right' - and I turned, and
saw a boy picking his way across the grass, his eyes in a
scowl and fixed on Diana's, his hand bearing a sugared ice,
which he held before him and sucked at very gingerly, for
fear it would drip and spoil his trousers. The trousers were
handsome, and bulged at the fork. The boy himself was tall
and slight; his hair was dark, and cut very short. His face
was a pretty one, his lips pink as a girl's . . .
When he reached Diana she leaned and drew the
handkerchief from his pocket, and began to dap with it at
his thigh - it seemed, he had spilt his ice-cream after all.
The other lady at the stall looked on, and smiled; then
murmured something that made the pretty boy blush.
I had stood and watched all this, in a kind of astonishment;
but now I took a slow step backwards, and then another.
Diana may have raised her face again, I cannot say: I didn't
stop to see it. Reggie had lifted his hand to lick at his ice,
his cuff had moved back, and I had caught the flash of a
wrist-watch beneath it... I blinked my eyes, and shook my
head, and ran back to the bush where Zena still stood
peeping, and put my face against her shoulder.
When I looked again at Diana, through the leaves, she had
her arm in Reggie's and their heads were close, and they
were laughing. I turned to Zena, and she bit her lip.
'It is only the devils what prosper in this world, I swear,' she
said. But then she bit her lip again; and then she tittered.
I laughed, too, for a moment. Then I cast another bitter look
towards the stall, and said: 'Well, I hope she gets all she
Zena cocked her head. 'Who?' she asked. 'Diana, or -?'
I pulled a face, and would not answer her.
We wandered back to the speakers' tent, then, and Zena said
she had better try to find her Maud.
'We'll be friends, won't we?' I said as we shook hands.
She nodded. 'You must be sure to introduce me to Miss
Banner, anyway; I should like that.'
'Yes, well - you must at least come round some time and
tell her you've forgiven me: she thinks me a regular brute,
over you.'
She smiled - then something caught her eye, and she turned
her head. There's my other sweetheart,' she said quickly she gestured to a wide-shouldered, tommish-looking
woman, who was studying us as we chatted, and frowning.
Zena pulled a face. 'She likes to come the uncle, that one
'She does look a bit fierce. You'd better go to her: I don't
want to end up with another blacked eye.'
She smiled, and pressed my hand; and I saw her step over
to the woman and kiss her cheek, then disappear with her
into the crush of people between the stalls. I ducked back
into the tent. It was fuller and hotter than ever in there, the
air thick with smoke, the people's faces sweating and
jaundiced-looking where they were struck, through the
canvas, by the afternoon sun. On the platform a woman was
stumbling hoarsely through some speech or other, and a
dozen people in the audience were on their feet, arguing
with her. Florence was back in her chair before the dais,
with Cyril kicking in her lap. Annie and Miss Raymond
were beside her, with a pretty fair-haired girl I did not
know. Ralph was nearby, his forehead gleaming and his
face stiff with fright.
There was an empty seat next to Florence, and when I had
made my way across the grass I sat in it and took the baby
from her.
'Where have you been?' she asked above the shouting. 'It
has been terrible in here. A load of boys have come in,
intent on causing a stir. Poor Ralph is to speak next: he is so
feverish you could fry an egg on him.'
I bounced Cyril upon my knee. 'Flo,' I said, 'you will never
believe who I have just seen!'
'Who? she asked. Then her eyes grew wide. 'Not Eleanor
'No, no - nobody like that! It was Zena, that girl I knew at
Diana Lethaby's. And not only her, but Diana herself! The
both of them here at once, can you imagine? My heart,
when I saw Diana again - I thought I should die!' I jiggled
Cyril until he began to squeal. Florence's face, however,
had hardened.
'My God!' she said; and her tone made me flinch. 'Can we
not enjoy even a socialist rally without your wretched past
turning up to haunt us? You have not sat and listened to one
speech here today; I suppose you have not so much as
glanced at one of the stalls. All you have eyes and thoughts
for is yourself; yourself, and the women you have - the
women you have -'
The women I have fucked, I suppose you mean,' I said in a
low voice. I leaned away from her, really shocked and hurt;
then I grew angry. 'Well, at least I got a fuck out of my old
sweethearts. Which is more than you got out of Lilian.'
At that, her mouth fell open, and her eyes began to gleam
with tears.
'You little cat,' she said. 'How can you say such things to
'Because I am sick to death of hearing about Lilian, and
how bloody marvellous she was!'
'She was marvellous,' she said. 'She was. She should have
been here to see all this, not you! She would have
understood it all, whereas you -'
'You wish she was here, I suppose,' I spat out rashly,
'instead of me?'
She gazed at me, the tears upon her lashes. I felt my own
eyes prickle, and my throat grow thick. 'Nance,' she said, in
a gentler tone - but I raised my hand, and turned my face
'We agreed it, didn't we?' I said, trying to keep the
bitterness from my voice. And then, when she wouldn't
answer: 'God knows, there are places I'd sooner be, than
I said it to spite her; but when she rose and moved away
from me with her fingers before her eyes, I felt desperately
sorry. I put my hand to my pocket for a handkerchief: what
I drew out was the programme that Miss Skinner had given
me, for Flo to sign; I found myself gazing at it, quite
bewildered by the sudden turns the afternoon had taken.
And all the time, the woman on the platform talked
hoarsely on, arguing with the hecklers in the audience - the
air seemed clotted with shouts and smoke and bad feeling.
I looked up. Florence was standing near the wall of canvas,
beside Annie and Miss Raymond: she was shaking her
head, as they leaned to put their hands upon her arm. When
Annie drew back I caught her eye, and she walked over and
gave me a wary smile.
'You should have learned better than to argue with Florrie,'
she said, taking the seat beside me. 'She is about as sharptongued as anyone I know.'
'She tells the truth,' I said miserably. 'Which is sharper than
anything.' I sighed; then, to change the subject, I asked:
'Have you had a good day, Annie?'
'I have,' she said. 'It has all been rather wonderful.'
'And who is that girl with your Emma?' I nodded to the fairhaired woman at Miss Raymond's side.
That's Mrs Costello,' she said, 'Emma's widowed sister."
'Oh!' I had heard of her before, but never expected her to be
so young and pretty. 'How handsome she is. What a shame
she ain't - like us. Is there no hope of it?'
'None at all, I'm afraid. But she is a lovely girl. Her husband
was the kindest man, and Emma says she is just about
despairing that she will ever find another to match him. The
only men who want to court her turn out to be boxers ..."
I smiled dully; I was not much bothered about Mrs
Costello, really. While Annie talked I kept glancing over to
Florence. She now stood at the far side of the tent, a
handkerchief gripped between her fingers but her cheeks
dry and white. However long and hard I looked at her, she
would not meet my gaze.
I had almost decided to make my way over to her, when
there came a sudden clamour: the lady on the platform had
finished her speech, and the crowd was reluctantly
clapping. This meant, of course, that it was time for Ralph's
address; Annie and I turned to see him hover uncertainly at
the side of the little stage, then stumble up the steps as his
name was announced, and take up his place at the front of
the platform.
I looked at Annie and grimaced, and she bit her lip. The
tent had quietened a little, but not much. Most of the
afternoon's serious listeners seemed to have grown tired and
left: their seats had been taken by idlers, by yawning
women and by more rowdy boys.
Before this careless crowd Ralph now stood and cleared his
throat. He had his speech, I saw, in his hand - to refer to, I
guessed, if he forgot his lines. His forehead was streaming
with sweat; his neck was stiff. I knew he would never be
able to project his voice to the back of the tent, with his
throat so stiff and tense.
With another cough, he began.
'"Why Socialism?" That is the question I have been invited
to discuss with you this afternoon.' Annie and I were sitting
in the third row from the front, and even we could hardly
hear him; from the mass of men and women behind us there
came a cry - 'Speak up!' - and a ripple of laughter. Ralph
coughed yet again, and when he next spoke his voice was
louder, but also rather hoarse.
'"Why Socialism?" I shall keep my answer rather brief.'
Thank God for something, then!' called a man at that - as I
knew somebody would - and Ralph gazed wildly around the
tent for a second, quite distracted. I saw with dismay that he
had lost his place, and was forced to glance at the sheets in
his hand. There was a horrible silence while he found the
spot; when he next spoke, of course, it was into the paper,
just as he had used to do in our Quilter Street parlour.
'How many times,' he was saying, 'have you heard
economists say that England is the richest nation in the
world . . . ?' I found myself reciting it with him, urging him
on; but he stumbled, and muttered, and once or twice was
forced to tilt his paper to the light, to read it. By now the
crowd had begun to groan and sigh and shuffle. I saw the
chairman, seated at the back of the platform, making up his
mind to step over to him and tell him to speak up or to stop;
I saw Florence, pale and agitated to see her brother so
awkward - her own griefs, for the moment, quite forgotten.
Ralph started on a passage of statistics: 'Two hundred years
ago,' he read, 'Britain's land and capital was worth five
hundred million pounds; today it is worth - it is worth -' He
tilted the paper again; but while he did so, a fellow stood up
to shout: 'What are you, man? A socialist, or a
schoolmaster?' And at that, Ralph sagged as if he had been
winded. Annie whispered: 'Oh, no! Poor Ralph! I can't bear
'Neither can I,' I said. I jumped to my feet, thrust Cyril at
her, then hurried to the steps at the side of the platform and
ran up them, two at a time. The chairman saw me and halfrose to block my path, but I waved him back and stepped
purposefully over to the sweating, sagging Ralph.
'Oh, Nance,' he said, as close to tears as I had ever seen
him. I took his arm and gripped it tight, and held him in his
place before the crowd. They had grown momentarily silent
-through sheer delight, I think, at seeing me leap, so
dramatically, to Ralph's side. Now I took advantage of their
hush to send my voice across their heads in a kind of roar.
'So you don't care for mathematics?' I cried, picking up the
speech where Ralph had let it falter. 'Perhaps it's hard to
think in millions; well, then, let us think in thousands. Let
us think of three hundred thousand. What do you think I am
referring to? The Lord Mayor's salary?' There were titters at
that: there had been a bit of a scandal, a couple of years
before, about the Lord Mayor's wages. Now I gratefully
singled out the titterers and addressed myself to them. 'No
missis,' I said, 'I'm not talking of pounds, nor even of
shillings. I am talking of persons. I am talking of the
amount of men, women, and children who are living in the
workhouses of London - of London! the richest city, in the
richest country, in the richest empire, in all the world! - at
this very moment, as I speak now . . .'
I went on like this; and the titters grew less. I spoke of all
the paupers in the nation; and of all the people who would
die in Bethnal Green, that year, in a workhouse bed. 'Shall
it be you that dies in the poorhouse, sir?' I cried -I found
myself adding a few little rhetorical flourishes to the
speech, as I went along. 'Shall it be you, miss? Or your old
mother? Or this little boy?' The little boy began to cry.
Then: 'How old are we likely to be, when we die?' I asked. I
turned to Ralph - he was gazing at me in undisguised
wonder - and called, loudly enough for the crowd to hear,
'What is the average age of death, Mr Banner, amongst the
men and women of Bethnal Green?'
He stared at me dumbfounded for a second, then, when I
pinched the flesh of his arm, sang out: 'Twenty-nine!' I did
not think it was loud enough. 'How old?' I cried - for all the
world as if I were a pantomime dame, and Ralph my crosschat partner - and he called the figure out again, louder than
before: 'Twenty-nine!'
'Nine-and-twenty' I said to the audience. 'What if I were a
lady, Mr Banner? What if I lived in Hampstead or - or St
John's Wood; lived very comfortably, on my shares in
Bryant and May? What is the average age of death amongst
such ladies?'
'It is fifty-five,' he said at once. 'Fifty-five! Almost twice as
long.' He had remembered the speech and now, at my silent
urging, kept on with it, in a voice that was soon almost as
strong as my own. 'Because for every one person that dies
in the smart parts of the city, four will die in the East End.
They will die, many of 'em, of diseases which their smart
neighbours know perfectly well how to treat or prevent. Or
they will be killed by machines, in their workshops. Or
perhaps they will simply die of hunger. Indeed, one or two
people will die in London this very night, of pure starvation
'And all this, after two hundred years in which - as all the
economists will tell you - Great Britain's wealth has
increased twenty times over! All this in the richest city on
There were some shouts at that, but I waited for them to die
before taking up the speech where he had left it; and when I
did speak at last, I did it quietly, so that people had to lean,
and frown, to hear me. 'Why is this so?' I said. 'Is it because
working people are spendthrifts? Because we would rather
use our money to buy gin and porter, and trips to the music
hall, and tobacco, and on betting, than on meat for our
children and bread for ourselves? You will see all these
things written, and hear them said, by rich men. Does that
make them true? Truth is a queer thing, when it comes to
rich men talking about the poor. Only think: if we broke
into a rich man's house, he would call us thieves, and send
us to prison. If we set a foot on his estate, we would be
trespassers - he would set his dogs upon us! If we took
some of his gold, we would be pickpockets; if we made him
pay us money to get the gold back, we would be swindlers
and con-men!
'But what is the rich man's wealth but robbery, called by
another title? The rich man steals from his competitors; he
steals the land, and puts a wall about it; he steals our health,
our liberty; he steals the fruits of our labour, and obliges us
to buy them back from him! Does he call these things
robbery, and slave-holding, and swindling? No: they are
termed enterprise; and business skill; and capitalism. They
are termed nature.
'But is it natural, that babies should die for want of milk? Is
it natural, that women should sew skirts and coats long into
the night, in cramped and suffocating workshops? That men
and boys should be killed or crippled to provide the coal
upon your fires? That bakers should be choked, baking your
bread?' My voice had risen as I spoke; and now I bellowed.
'Do you think that's natural? Do you think that's just?' 'No!'
came a hundred voices at once. 'No! No!' 'Neither do
socialists!' cried Ralph: he had crushed his speech between
his fingers, and now shook it at the crowd. 'We are sick of
seeing wealth and property going straight into the pockets
of the idle and the rich! We don't want a portion of that
wealth - the bit that the rich man cares, from time to time,
to chuck at us. We want to see society quite transformed!
We want to see money put to use, not kept for profit! We
want to see working women's babies thriving - and
workhouses pulled to the ground, 'cause no one needs 'em!'
There were cheers at that, and he raised his hands. 'You are
cheering now,' he said; 'it is rather easy to cheer, perhaps,
when the weather is so gay. But you must do more than
cheer. You must act. Those of you that work - men and
women alike - join unions! Those of you that have votes use 'em! Use 'em to put your own people into parliament.
And campaign for your womenfolk - for your sisters and
daughters and wives - that they might have votes of their
own, to help you!' 'Go home tonight,' I went on, moving
forward again, 'and ask yourselves the question that Mr
Banner has asked you today: Why Socialism? And you will
find yourselves obliged to answer it as we have. "Because
Britain's people," you will say, "have laboured under the
capitalist and the landlord system and grown only poorer
and sicker and more miserable and afraid. Because it is not
by charity and paltry reforms that we shall improve
conditions for the weakest classes - not by taxes, not by
electing one capitalist government over another, not even
by abolishing the House of Lords! - but by turning over the
land, and industry, to the people who work it. Because
socialism is the only system for a fair society: a society in
which the good things of the world are shared, not amongst
the idlers of the world, but amongst the workers" - amongst
yourselves: you, who have made the rich man rich, and
been kept, for your labours, only ill and half-starved!'
There was a second's silence, then a burst of thunderous
applause. I looked at Ralph - his cheeks were red, now, and
his lashes wet with tears - then seized his hand, and raised
it. And then, as the cheers at last died down, I looked at
Florence, who had moved to join Annie and Cyril, and was
watching me with her fingers at her lips.
Behind us, the chairman approached to shake our hands;
and when this was done we made our way off the platform,
and were surrounded at once by smiles and congratulations
and more applause.
'What a triumph!' Annie called, stepping forward to greet us
first. 'Ralph, you were magnificent!'
Ralph blushed. 'It was all Nancy's doing,' he said
selfconsciously. Annie smirked, and turned to me. 'Bravo!'
she said. 'What a performance! If I had had a flower, I
would have thrown it!' She could not say any more,
however, for behind her had come an elderly lady, who
now pushed forward to catch my eye. It was Mrs Macey, of
the Women's Cooperative Guild.
'My dear,' she said, 'I must congratulate you! What a really
splendid address! They tell me you were an actress, once ...
?' 'Do they?' I said. 'Yes, I was.'
'Well, we cannot afford to have such talents in our ranks,
you know, and let them lie unused. Do say that you will
speak for us another time. One really charismatic speaker
can work wonders with an indecisive crowd.'
'I'll gladly speak for you,' I said. 'But you, you know, must
write the speech .. .'
'Of course! Of course!' She clasped her hands together and
raised her eyes. 'Oh! I foresee rallies and debates, even who knows? - a lecture tour!' At that, I gazed at her for a
second in real alarm; then I felt my attention sought by a
figure at my side, and turned to find Emma Raymond's
sister, Mrs Costello, looking flushed and excited.
'What a wonderful address!' she said shyly. 'I felt moved
almost to tears by it.' Her lovely face was indeed pale and
grave, her eyes large and blue and lustrous. I thought again
what I had thought before - what a shame it was that she
was not a torn . . . But then I remembered what Annie had
said about her: how she had lost her gentle husband, and
sought another.
'How kind you are,' I said earnestly. 'But, you know, it's
really Mr Banner who deserves your praises, for he
composed the entire speech himself.' As I said it I reached
for Ralph, and pulled him over. 'Ralph,' I said, 'this is Mrs
Costello, Miss Raymond's widowed sister. She very much
enjoyed your address.'
'I did,' said Mrs Costello. She held out her hand, and Ralph
took it, then gazed blinking into her face. 'I have always
found the world to be so terribly unjust,' she went on, 'but
felt only powerless, before today, to change it. . .'
They still held hands, but had not noticed. I left them to it,
and rejoined Annie and Miss Raymond, and Florence.
Annie put her hand upon my shoulder.
'A lecture tour, eh?' she said. 'My word!' Then she turned to
Flo: 'And how should you like that?'
Florence had not smiled at me since I had stepped from the
stage; and she did not smile now. When she spoke at last,
her expression was sad and grave and almost bewildered as if astonished at her own bitterness.
'I should like it very much,' she said, 'if I thought that
Nancy really meant her speeches, and wasn't just repeating
them like a - like a dam' parrot!'
Annie looked uneasily at Miss Raymond, then said, 'Oh
Florrie, for shame ..." I did not say anything, but gazed hard
at Florence for a second, then looked away - my pleasure at
the speech, at the shouts of the crowd, all dimmed, and my
heart all heavy.
The tent, now, was quiet: there was no speaker on the
platform, and people had taken advantage of the break to
drift outside into the sunlight and the bustle of the field.
Miss Raymond said brightly, 'Let us all sit down, shall we?'
As we moved to occupy a row of empty seats, however, a
little girl came trotting up, and caught my eye.
'Excuse me, miss,' she said. 'Are you the gal what give the
lecture?' I nodded. There is a lady just outside the tent, then,
says will you please step up and have a word?'
Annie laughed, and raised her eyebrows. 'Another lecture
tour offer, perhaps?' she said.
I looked at the girl, and hesitated.
'A lady, you say?'
'Yes miss,' she said firmly. 'A lady. Dressed real smart, with
her eyes all hid behind a hat with a veil on it.'
I gave a start, and looked quickly at Florence. A lady in a
veil: there was only one person that could be. Diana must
have seen me after all, and watched me give my speech,
and now sought me out for - who knew what queer
purpose? The idea made me tremble. When the girl stepped
away I turned to gaze after her, and Florence shifted in her
seat, and stared with me. In the corner of the tent there was
a square of sunlight, where the canvas had been tied back to
form a doorway - it was so bright I had to narrow my eyes
to look at it, and blink. At one edge of the square of light
stood a woman, her face concealed, as the girl had said, by
a broad hat and a width of net. As I studied her, she lifted
her arms to her veil, and raised it. And then I saw her face.
'Why don't you go to her?' I heard Florence say coldly. 'I
daresay she has come to ask you back to St John's Wood.
You shall never have to think of socialism again, there ..."
I turned to her; and when she saw how pale my cheeks
were, her expression changed.
'It's not Diana,' I whispered. 'Oh, Flo! It's not Diana -'
It was Kitty.
I stood for a moment quite dumbfounded. I had seen two
old lovers already today; and here was the third of them -
or, rather, the first of them: my original love; my one true
love -my real love, my best love - the love who had so
broken my heart, it seemed never to have fired quite
properly again . . .
I went to her, without another glance at Florence, and stood
before her and rubbed my eyes against the sun - so that,
when I looked at her again, she seemed surrounded by a
thousand dancing points of light.
'Nan,' she said, and she smiled, rather nervously. 'You have
not forgotten me, I hope?' Her voice shook a little, as it had
used to do, sometimes, in passion. Her accent was rather
purer, with slightly less colour to it, than I remembered.
'Forgotten you?' I said then, finding my own voice at last.
'No. I'm only so very surprised, to see you.' I gazed at her,
and swallowed. Her eyes were as brown as ever, her lashes
as dark, her lip as pink . . . But she had changed, I had seen
it at once. There were one or two creases beside her mouth
and at her brow, that told of the years that had passed since
we were sweethearts; and she had let her hair grow, so that
it curved above her ears in a great, glossy pompadour. With
the creases and the hair she did not look, any more, like the
prettiest of boys: she looked, as the girl she had sent to me
had said, like a lady.
As I studied her, so she gazed at me. At last she said, 'You
seem very different, to when I saw you last..."
I shrugged. 'Of course. I was nineteen then. I'm twenty-five,
Twenty-five in two weeks' time,' she answered; and her lip
trembled a little. 'I remembered that, you see.'
I felt myself blush, and could not answer her. She gazed
past me, into the tent. 'You can imagine my surprise,' she
said then, 'when I looked in there just now, and saw you
lecturing from the stage. I never thought you'd end up on a
platform in a tent, speaking on workers' rights!'
'Neither did I,' I said. Then I smiled, and so did she. 'Why
are you here, at all?' I asked her then.
'I'm in rooms at Bow. Everyone has been saying all week,
that I must come to the park on Sunday, since there was to
be such a marvellous thing in it.'
'Have they?'
'Oh, yes!'
'And - are you here quite alone, then?'
She glanced quickly away. 'Yes. Walter's in Liverpool just
now. He has gone back to managing: he has shares in a hall
up there, and has rented a house for us. I'm to join him
when the house is ready.'
'And you're still working the halls?'
'Not so much. We ... we had an act together -'
'I know,' I said. 'I saw you. At the Middlesex.' Her eyes
widened. The time that you met Billy-Boy? Oh, Nan, if I
had only known that you were watching! When Bill came
back and said he'd seen you -' 'I couldn't look at you for
long,' I said. 'Were we so bad as that, then?' She smiled, but
I shook my head: 'It wasn't that..." Her smile grew fainter.
I said, after a moment: 'So you don't work so much? How's
'Well, Walter is kept busy with the managing now. And
then - well, we kept it quiet, but I was rather ill.' She
hesitated. 'I was to have a child ..."
The thought was horrible to me, in every way. 'I'm sorry,' I
She shrugged. 'Walter was disappointed. We have quite
forgotten it now, however. It only means that I am not quite
so strong as I once was . . .'
We fell silent. I looked for a second into the crowd, then
back at Kitty. She had coloured. Now she said: 'Nan, Bill
told me, when he met you that time, that you were dressed well, as a boy.'
That's right. I was. Quite as a boy.' She laughed and
frowned at once, not understanding.
'He said, too, that you were living with a - with a -' 'With a
lady. I was.'
She blushed still harder. 'And - are you with her still?' 'No, I
-I live with a girl now, in Bethnal Green.' 'Oh!'
I hesitated - but then I did what I had done with Zena, two
hours before. I moved slightly into the shadow of the tent,
and Kitty followed. That's her over there,' I said, nodding
towards the seats before the platform. The girl with the little
Annie and Miss Raymond had moved away, and Florence
sat alone now. As I gestured to her she looked over at me,
then gazed gravely at Kitty. Kitty herself gave another little
'Oh,' and then a nervous smile. 'It's Flo,' I said, 'who's the
socialist, and who has got me into all this ..." As I spoke,
Florence took off her hat: immediately, Cyril began pulling
at the pins that fixed her hair, and twisting the curls about
his fingers. His tugs made her redden. I watched her for a
little longer, then saw her look again at Kitty; and when I
turned to Kitty herself I found that her eyes were upon me
and her expression was rather strange.
'I cannot stop myself from gazing at you,' she said, with an
uncertain smile. 'When you ran off, I was sure, at first, that
you'd be back. Where did you go? What did you do? We
tried so hard to find you. And then, when there was no
word of you, I was sure that I would never see you again. I
thought - oh Nan, I thought that you had harmed yourself.'
I swallowed. 'You harmed me, Kitty. It was you that
harmed me.'
'I know it, now. Do you think I don't know it? I feel
ashamed to even talk to you. I am so sorry, for what
'You needn't be sorry now,' I said awkwardly. But she went
on as if she had not heard me: that she was so very sorry;
that what she had done had been so very wrong. That she
was sorry, so sorry . . .
At last, I shook my head. 'Oh!' I said. 'What does all that
matter now? It matters nothing!'
'Doesn't it?' she said. I felt my heart begin to hammer.
When I did not answer, only continued to stare at her, she
took a step towards me and began to talk, very fast and low.
'Oh Nan, so many times I thought about finding you, and
planned what I would say When I did. I cannot leave you
now without saying it!'
'I don't want to hear it,' I said in sudden terror; I believe I
even put my hands to my ears, to try to block out the sound
of her murmurs. But she caught at my arm and talked on,
into my face.
'You must hear it! You must know. You mustn't think that I
did what I did easily, or thoughtlessly. You mustn't think it
did not - break my heart.'
'Why did you do it, then?'
'Because I was a fool! Because I thought my life upon the
stage was dearer to me than anything. Because I thought
that I would be a star. Because, of course, I did not ever
think that I would really, really lose you . . .' She hesitated.
Outside the tent the bustle of the day went on: children ran
shrieking; stall-holders called and argued; flags and
pamphlets fluttered in the May breezes. She took a breath.
She said: 'Nan, come back to me.'
Come back to me ... One part of me reached out to her at
once, leapt to her like a pin to a magnet; I believe the very
same part of me would leap to her again - would go on
leaping to her, if she went on asking me, for ever.
Then another part of me remembered, and remembers still.
'Come back to you?' I said. 'With you, still Walter's wife?'
'All that means nothing,' she said quickly. 'There's nothing like that - between him and me now. If we were only a little
'Careful!' I said: the word had made me flinch. 'Careful!
Careful! That's all I ever had from you. We were so careful,
we might as well have been dead!' I shook myself free of
her. 'I have a new girl now, who's not ashamed to be my
sweetheart.' But Kitty came close, and seized my arm again.
That girl with the baby?' she said, nodding back into the
tent. 'You don't love her, I can see it in your face. Not as
you loved me. Don't you remember how it was? You were
mine, before anyone's; you belong with me. You don't
belong with her and her sort, talking all this foolish political
stuff. Look at your clothes, how plain and cheap they are!
Look at these people all about us: you left Whitstable to get
away from people such as this!'
I gazed at her for a second in a kind of stupor; then I did as
she urged me, and glanced about the tent - at Annie and
Miss Raymond; at Ralph, who was still blinking and
blushing into Mrs Costello's face; at Nora and Ruth, who
stood beside the platform with some other girls I recognised
from the Boy in the Boat, hi a chair at the far side of the
tent -I had not noticed her before – sat Zena, her arm looped
through that of her broad-shouldered sweetheart; close to
them stood a couple of Ralph's union friends - they nodded
when they saw me looking, and raised a glass. And in the
midst of them all, sat Florence. Her head was still bent to
where Cyril clutched at it: he had tugged her hair down to
her shoulder, and she had raised her hands to pull his
fingers free. She was flushed and smiling; but even as she
smiled, she lifted her eyes to mine, and I saw tears in them perhaps, only from Cyril's grasping - and, behind the tears,
a kind of bleakness, that I did not think I'd ever seen in
them before.
I could not meet her smile with one of my own. But when I
turned again to Kitty, my gaze was level; and my voice,
when I spoke, was perfectly steady.
'You're wrong,' I said. 'I belong here, now: these are my
people. And as for Florence, my sweetheart, I love her more
than I can say; and I never realised it, until this moment.'
She let go of my arm and stepped away as if she had been
struck. 'You are saying these things to spite me,' she said
breathlessly, 'because you are still hurt -'
I shook my head. 'I'm saying these things because they're
true. Good-bye, Kitty.'
'Nan!' she cried, as I made to move away from her. I turned
'Don't call me that,' I said pettishly. 'No one calls me that
now. It ain't my name, and never was.'
She swallowed, then stepped towards me again and said in
a lower, chastened tone: 'Nancy, then. Listen to me: I still
have all your things. All the things you left at Stamford
'I don't want them,' I said at once. 'Keep them, or throw 'em
away: I don't care.'
'There are letters, from your family! Your father came to
London, looking for you. Even now, they send me letters,
asking if I have heard ..."
My father! I had had a vision, on seeing Diana, of myself
upon a silken bed. Now, more vividly, I saw my father, in
the apron that fell to his boots; I saw my mother, and my
brother, and Alice. I saw the sea. My eyes began to smart,
as if there was salt in them.
'You can send me the letters,' I said thickly: I thought, I'll
write, and tell them of Florence. And if they don't care for it
-well, at least they'll know that I'm safe, and happy . . .
Now Kitty came nearer, and lowered her voice still further.
There's the money, too,' she said. 'We have kept it all. Nan,
there's almost seven hundred pounds of yours!'
I shook my head: I had forgotten about the money. 'I have
nothing to spend it on,' I said simply. But even as I said it, I
remembered Zena, whom I had robbed; and I thought again
of Florence - I imagined her dropping seven hundred
pounds into the charity boxes of East London, coin by coin.
Would that make her love me, more than Lilian?
'You can send me the money, too,' I said to Kitty at last;
and I told her my address, and she nodded, and said she'd
We gazed at one another then. Her lips were damp and
slightly parted; and she had paled, so that her freckles
showed. Involuntarily I thought back to that night at the
Canterbury Palace, when I had met her first and learned I
loved her, and she had kissed my hand, and called me
'Mermaid', and thought of me as she should not have.
Perhaps the same memory had occurred to her, for now she
said, 'Is this how it's to end up, then? Won't you let me see
you again; you might come and visit -'
I shook my head. 'Look at me,' I said. 'Look at my hair.
What would your neighbours say, if I came visiting you?
You'd be too afraid to walk upon the street with me, in case
some feller called out!'
She blushed, and her lashes fluttered. 'You have changed,'
she said again; and I answered, simply: 'Yes, Kitty, I have.'
She raised her hands to lower her veil. 'Good-bye,' she said.
I nodded. She turned away; and as I stood and watched her,
I found that I was aching slightly, as from a thousand
fading bruises . . .
I cannot let you go, I thought, so easily as that! While she
was still quite near I took a step into the sunshine, and
looked about me. Upon the grass beside the tent there was a
kind of wreath or bower — part of some display that had
come loose and been discarded. There were roses on it: I
bent and plucked one, and called to a boy who was standing
idly by, handed the flower to him and gave him a penny,
and told him what I wanted. Then I moved back into the
shadows of the tent, behind the wall of sloping canvas, and
watched. The boy ran up to Kitty; I saw her turn at his cry,
then stoop to hear his message. He held the rose to her, and
pointed back to where I stood, concealed. She turned her
face towards me, then took the flower; he raced off at once
to spend his coin, but she stood quite still, the rose held
before her in her clasped, gloved ringers, her veiled head
weaving a little as she tried to pick me out. I don't believe
she saw me, but she must have guessed that I was watching,
for after a minute she gave a kind of nod in my direction the slightest, saddest, ghostliest of footlight bows. Then she
turned; and soon I lost her to the crowd.
I turned then, too, and headed back into the tent. I saw Zena
first, making her way out into the sunshine, and then Ralph
and Mrs Costello, walking very slowly side by side. I didn't
stop to speak to them; I only smiled, and stepped
purposefully towards the row of chairs in which I had left
But when I reached it, Florence was not there. And when I
looked around, I could not see her anywhere.
'Annie,' I called - for she and Miss Raymond had drifted
over to join the group of toms beside the platform - 'Annie,
where's Flo?'
Annie gazed about the tent, then shrugged. 'She was here a
minute ago,' she said. 'I didn't see her leave.' There was
only one exit from the tent; she must have passed me while
I was gazing after Kitty, too preoccupied to notice her . . .
I felt my heart give a lurch: it seemed to me suddenly that if
I didn't find Florence at once, I would lose her for ever. I
ran from the tent into the field, and gazed wildly about me.
I recognised Mrs Macey in the crowd, and stepped up to
her. Had she seen Florence? She had not. I saw Mrs Fryer
again: had she seen Florence? She thought perhaps she had
spotted her a moment before, heading off, with the little
boy, towards Bethnal Green . . .
I didn't stop to thank her, but hurried away - shouldering
my way through the crush of people, stumbling and cursing
and sweating with panic and haste. I passed the Shafts stall
again - did not turn my head, this time, to see whether
Diana was still at it, with her new boy - but only walked
steadily onwards, searching for a glimpse of Florence's
jacket or glittering hair, or Cyril's sash.
At last I left the thickest crowd behind, and found myself in
the western half of the park, near the boating-lake. Here,
heedless of the speeches and the debates that were taking
place within the tents and around the stalls, boys and girls
sat in boats, or swam, shrieking and splashing and larking
about. Here, too, there were a number of benches; and on
one of them -I almost cried out to see it! - sat Florence, with
Cyril a little way before her, dipping his hands and the frill
of his skirt into the water of the lake. I stood for a moment
to get my breath back, to pull off my hat and wipe at my
damp brow and temples; then I walked slowly over.
Cyril saw me first, and waved and shouted. At his cry
Florence looked up and met my gaze, and gave a gulp. She
had taken the daisy from her lapel, and was turning it
between her fingers. I sat beside her, and placed my arm
along the back of the bench so that my hand just brushed
her shoulder. 'I thought,' I said breathlessly, 'that I had lost
you She gazed at Cyril. 'I watched you talking with Kitty.'
'You said - you said she would never come back.' She
looked desperately sad.
'I'm sorry, Flo. I'm so sorry! I know it ain't fair, that she did,
and Lilian will never . . .'
She turned her head. 'She really came to - ask you back to
I nodded. Then, 'Would you care,' I asked quietly, 'if I
'If you went?' She swallowed. 'I thought you'd gone already.
I saw a look upon your face
'And did you care?' I said again. She gazed at the flower
between her fingers.
'I made up my mind to leave the park and go home. There
seemed nothing to stay for - not even Eleanor Marx! Then I
got as far as here and thought, "What would I do at home,
with you not there .. . ?"' She gave the daisy another twist,
and two or three of its petals fell and clung to the wool of
her skirt. I looked once about the field, then turned to face
her again, and began to speak^ to her, low and earnestly, as
if I were arguing for my life.
'Flo,' I said, 'you were right, what you said before, about
that address I gave with Ralph. It wasn't mine, I didn't mean
the words - at least, not then, when I said them.' I came to a
halt, then put a hand to my head. 'Oh! I feel like I've been
repeating other people's speeches all my life. Now, when I
want to make a speech of my own, I find I hardly know
'If you are fretting over how to tell me you are leaving -'
'I am fretting,' I said, 'over how to tell you that I love you;
over how to say that you are all the world to me; that you
and Ralph and Cyril are my family, that I could never leave
- even though I was so careless with my own kin.' My voice
grew thick; she gazed at me but didn't answer, so I
stumbled on. 'Kitty broke my heart -I used to think she'd
killed it! I used to think that only she could mend it; and so,
for five years I've been wishing she'd come back. For five
years I have scarcely let myself think of her, for fear that
the thought would drive me mad with grief. Now she has
turned up, saying all the things I dreamed she'd say; and I
find my heart is mended already, by you. She made me
know it. That was the look you saw on my face.' I raised a
hand to stop a tickling at my cheek, and found tears there.
'Oh, Flo!' I said then. 'Only say - only say you'll let me love
you, and be with you; that you'll let me be your sweetheart,
and your comrade. I know I'm not Lily -'
'No, you're not Lily,' she said. 'I thought I knew what that
meant - but I never did, till I saw you gazing at Kitty and
thought I should lose you. I've been missing Lily for so
long, it's come to seem that wanting anything must be only
another way of wanting her; but oh! how different wanting
seemed, when I knew it was you I wanted, only you, only
you ..."
I shifted closer towards her: the paper in my pocket gave a
rustle, and I remembered romantic Miss Skinner, and all the
friendless girls who Zena had said were mad in love with
Flo, at Freemantle House. I opened my mouth to tell her;
then thought I wouldn't, just yet - in case she hadn't noticed.
Instead, I gazed again about the park, at the crush of gayfaced people, at the tents and stalls, the ribbons and flags
and banners: it seemed to me then that it was Florence's
passion, and hers alone, that had set the whole park
fluttering. I turned back to her, took her hand in mind,
crushed the daisy between our fingers and - careless of
whether anybody watched or not -I leaned and kissed her.
Cyril still squatted with his frills in the lake. The afternoon
sun cast long shadows over the bruised and trampled grass.
From the speakers' tent there came a muffled cheer, and a
rising ripple of applause.
Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has a Ph.D.
in English literature and has published articles on lesbian
and gay writing and cultural history. She has worked in
bookshops and libraries and now teaches for the Open
University, though she has given up full-time academic
work in order to concentrate on writing fiction. She is
currently working on her second novel.